The Engels Angle: Northeast Breakdown: Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo Sabres' Thomas Vanek, left, of Austria, celebrates his goal with teammate Drew Stafford (21) in overtime of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Buffalo, N.Y., Friday, April 8, 2011. The Sabres won 4-3. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
Published Tuesday, September 13, 2011 2:53PM EDT
MONTREAL - The Northeast Division has grown tighter with the off-season improvement of the Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres.
The Boston Bruins enter this season as the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have improved some as well, though their challenge to make the playoffs is significantly steeper than that of Boston, Montreal or Buffalo.
And the Ottawa Senators are firmly entrenched in a rebuilding process that will likely prevent them from challenging for a playoff spot.
Let's get specific on the identities of each of Montreal's divisional rivals this week.
The Boston Bruins were the first feature in this series. Today, here's a look at the Buffalo Sabres.
Additions: Christian Erhoff, Robyn Regehr, Ville Leino, Ales Kotalik,
Subtractions: Tim Connolly, Rob Niedermayer, Mike Grier, Craig Rivet, Tim Kennedy (bought out)
Returning from Long-term injuries: Jason Pominville (leg-laceration), Derek Roy (torn quad-tendon)
The Buffalo Sabres received a major face-lift care of owner Terry Pegula, in the off-season.
With the stability that GM Darcy Regier and Coach Lindy Ruff offer, they're a shoe-in to do as well as, or improve on their 7th-place, Eastern Conference standing from last season.
This means they'll give the Canadiens a hell of a run for 2nd place in the division, and they could even challenge Boston (with Montreal) for a Northeast title.
The Sabres closed out last season with a terrifying stretch of multiple back-to-back situations.
They made it into the playoffs despite Derek Roy's absence for more than half the season and despite losing Ryan Miller to a concussion for four games during their stretch run.
They finished with 96 points (same as Habs; one less win).
Of note: the Sabres led the NHL with a record of 15-10 in Overtime/Shootout situations.
The Sabres struggled on the defensive side of the puck as Tyler Myers failed to live up to unreasonably high expectations after wowing the hockey world in his rookie season, in 2009-10.
Too many prognosticators threw Myers into the Norris race before the season even got underway, completely ignoring the reality that Henrik Tallinder's and Toni Lydman's departure from the team in the off-season would have a rather negative effect on Myers' ability to shoulder the load.
Yes, they replaced Tallinder and Lydman with Shaone Morrisonn and Jordan Leopold, but that was a significant drop-off in stability right there.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, captain Craig Rivet was relegated to the pressbox, unable to help stabilize the blue line despite his experience.
Buffalo finished with the 18th-best goals against average last season.
Tomas Vanek's return to offensive respectability (32 goals, 73 points), coupled with the maturation of young talents Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe helped float the Sabres offence, while Jason Pominville contributed to his capacity and Drew Stafford had an explosion that saw him finish with 31-markers in 62 games.
Miller collected 34 of the 43 wins the Sabres had last season.
Back-up Jhonas Enroth had a great NHL-debut, going 9-2-2, with a .907 SA%, enabling the Sabres to turn to a capable replacement for Miller when he went down near the end of their campaign.
Patrick Lalime rode instability out of the NHL, not collecting a single win in his seven appearances.
Brad Boyes was brought in from St. Louis at the trade deadline last year, and there's talk he could be starting the season in the minors because the Sabres are currently nearly 4-million dollars over the cap.
Boyes had five goals in 21 games with Buffalo, adding another nine assists.
Another reason Boyes might start in the minors: The Sabres have a degree of offensive depth they haven't enjoyed since Daniel Briere and Chris Drury were lured out of town by more lucrative offers from other teams.
Vanek, Pominville and Roy will lead the charge, but with Gerbe, Kotalik, Ennis, Leino, Stafford, Gaustad, Hecht, Kaleta and youngster Luke Adam in the mix, they have three lines that can hurt you, and a fourth that can certainly hold it's own.
What the Sabres don't have--as already mentioned--is cap space. But they have a great goalie, a capable back-up to ease the pressure, a dynamic offense, and a much-improved defense with the additions of Regehr and Erhoff.
Their penalty kill may not improve from their rank as the 13th best last year(though Regehr will clearly help in that department), but Erhoff and Leino give them a major boost on the powerplay-- where they finished in the league's top 10.
We'll keep an eye out to see how they deal with their cap situation.
Not sure when the last time was that you had a team full of guys excited to be playing and living in Buffalo, but Pegula's Millions have re-enthused the entire hockey community there.
The buzz is that the Sabres will be among the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Problem for them is that they'll have a very stiff competition to deal with in their own division; a race with the Canadiens and Bruins for the title.
We could be looking at a tie-breaker between two of, or all three teams in the mix for the division.
I see the Sabres ending up in third behind the Habs and Bruins, but I'll let the cat out of my hat to inform you that I believe the Bruins, Canadiens and Sabres will finish 3, 4, 5 in the conference.