The last time Buffalo hockey fans watched an NHL contest was over nine months ago on April 7th when the Sabres finished the 2011-2012 campaign with a loss to division rival, Boston Bruins, in shootout fashion.
Since that day, planet earth has continued to spin dependably on its axis despite the notions of the ancient Mayans and those in charge of ensuring the NHL’s continued growth and development.
When the world of the NHL came to an abrupt halt September 15, 2012, an entire continent paused for a second to notice. Unfortunately for the game of hockey, only the impassioned fans of the sport continued to keep tabs on the 100-plus day lockout that followed.
While the NHL and NHLPA bickered like two infants over a toy in a playpen full of them, the rest of the country went along concerning itself with real life issues such as; who will be the president for the next four years, the recently avoided fiscal cliff and Kimye.
Now that the two sides are close to finalizing the
negotiations that should have been settled over four months ago, the lasting
impact on how the product on the ice, and interest off of it, will be affected
remains to be seen.
It seems as though the major hockey markets will resume
business as usual, but for the teams that typically struggled to draw a crowd
before the lockout, there may be an even tougher realization once the season
It has been confirmed that the league will play a 48-game
regular season beginning on January 19, 2013, but no formal schedule has been
released. It is being forecasted that
each team will play 30 of the 48 games against conference opponents, while the
other 18 will be played within the respective division.
Most players have done their best to stay in shape by
skating and working out in their hometowns or in the cities they call home
during the season, but any player will tell you there is no substitute for the
physicality of an actual game.
Those who haven’t been playing in juniors or overseas will
certainly be behind the curve in terms of ‘game shape’ conditioning when teams
convene for abbreviated training camps coming up in the next week.
As the Sabres players begin to migrate back to Buffalo in
anticipation of the deal being made official, there should be a cautious
optimism not only for the 48-game regular season, but for the chances of making
the postseason and a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
The Sabres have strength in numbers all over their roster
except one position, center. After
trading away Derek Roy last season, the team will look to Cody Hodgson, Tyler
Ennis and possibly 2012 first round pick Mikhail Grigorenko to man the top
Grigorenko should get a long look in training camp at the
first line center spot between the Sabres top scoring duo Thomas Vanek and
Jason Pominville. So far in 2012-2013
with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, Grigorenko has 29-goals and 50-points in
30-games. He also registered 6-points in
7-games, leading the host team Russia to the Bronze medal in the 2013 World
Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.
That is not a knock on Cody Hodgson who has been a fantastic
playmaker in the middle for the Rochester Americans with 19-points in 19-games,
but the ceiling, size and skill set of Grigorenko make him an ideal fit for the
top center spot.
Should Grigorenko be sent back to the QMJHL then Steve Ott,
Ville Leino and Kevin Porter will be the candidates to pick up the third line
center duties while Hodgson plays on the top line.
It is tough to envision Tyler Ennis centering anyone but
Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford, who created great chemistry together at the
end of the 2011-2012 season. Foligno and
Stafford have the size and skill to work the corners and bury both the ugly and
pretty scoring opportunities from the offensive creativity Ennis infuses.
The Sabres have a few injury concerns for the beginning of
the season as Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick are both still recovering from
injuries and have been rehabbing with the team’s trainers throughout the
lockout. Corey Tropp is also out with a
torn ACL he suffered while skating for Rochester. When McCormick and Gerbe return to peak
physical condition, projected to be sometime in February, the competition will
ratchet up amongst the bottom two lines for playing time.
The greatest amount of depth the Sabres have resides along
the blue line, with 10 defensemen ready to vie for six NHL slots. Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers, Robyn Regehr
and Jordan Leopold are the four defensemen etched in stone, while the final two
spots could be decided over the next week.
Andrej Sekera and Alexander Sulzer are the top candidates to
don the blue and gold and will be pushed by a strong contingency of qualified
contenders. Adam Pardy, Brayden McNabb, T.J.
Brennan and Mike Weber all have NHL-type skill sets that could be put to use if
they impress in training camp.
The most significant position for the 2012-2013 Sabres is
between the pipes. Ryan Miller is the
unquestioned starting goaltender and Jhonas Enroth is his backup, but the real
quandary resides within which version of Ryan Miller will show up.
Will it be the 2010 Vezina Trophy winning, Olympic Silver
Medal wearing, Olympic MVP? Or the shell of that wall who showed up for much of
the 2011-2012 campaign? Although the
Sabres do not have the offensive talent of teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia,
New York and Carolina, if Miller can be the rock he has been for many of the
past Sabres playoff runs, they should contend for a top-5 spot in the Eastern
In order to contend for the Cup the Sabres need a lot of
things to go right. On top of the defense
and goaltending living up to expectations, they need Hodgson or Grigorenko to
step in and become an immediate presence in the middle. Additionally, the second and third line must
be more consistent contributors offensively.
With the amount of parity in the Northeastern Division there is no question the opportunity for a playoff run is there for the taking. Should all of the stars align, and potential becomes reality, it’s conceivable that Buffalo could hoist its first Stanley Cup in the season that almost never was.
Image of Ryan Miller: sabres.nhl.com