This time a year ago, Buffalo Sabres fans were happily awaiting the start of 2011-12.
Earlier in 2011, the club was taken over by billionaire and long-time Sabres fan Terry Pegula, who gave the green light last summer to GM Darcy Regier to sign UFA defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and left winger Ville Leino to lucrative contracts, as well as acquire blueliner Robyn Regehr from Calgary.
But after a promising start, the Sabres went into a prolonged funk, which led to missing the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.
That sparked expectations Regier and/or coach Lindy Ruff would be replaced, along with talk of possible roster moves.
Ownership opted to stick with Regier and Ruff and the former wasted little time setting about tweaking the lineup.
Earlier in the year, the Sabres GM had dealt pending free agent center Paul Gaustad to Nashville at the trade deadline and picked up young center Cody Hodgson in a deal with Vancouver.
On July 2, he shipped unhappy center Derek Roy to the Dallas Stars in exchange for gritty, versatile center Steve Ott and defenseman Adam Pardy.
Regier also re-signed physical right winger Patrick Kaleta to a three-year, $3.8-million contract and hulking UFA defenseman John Scott to a one-year, $600,000 deal. In the hours leading up to the expiration of the CBA, he inked left winger Tyler Ennis to a two-year, $5.7-million deal.
In adding Ott, Pardy and Scott and re-upping Kaleta, Regier aimed to ensure a rival player never again takes liberties with star goalie Ryan Miller and go unpunished, as Boston’s Milan Lucic did when he bowled over Miller in a game last November.
Regier also had interest in Phoenix Coyotes right winger Shane Doan and was rumored to have offered a four-year, $30 million contract before Doan re-signed with the Coyotes.
Despite the off-season moves, some problem areas remain for the Sabres.
Their top defensemen, Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers, missed considerable time last season (16 and 27 games respectively) to injury. As John Vogl of The Buffalo News noted in this year’s THN Yearbook, the Sabres were 30-14-3 with the duo in the lineup last season and 9-18-8 with at least one of them missing.
Regier’s only defense addition this summer was Scott, who’ll be playing the role of enforcer.
If Ehrhoff and Myers avoid serious injury, the Sabres defense corps will be significantly better. Should one or both be sidelined again, finding suitable short-term replacements will become a pressing issue for Regier.
It’s at forward, however, where the Sabres face the biggest question marks.
Having dealt away Roy and Gaustad, Ott is the only center with significant NHL experience. It’s expected Ennis will slide into one of the center spots, as Leino struggled in that role last season.
Hodgson is expected to be their first- or second-line center, with sophomore Luke Adam pencilled into the fourth line role. It’s also possible their 2012 first round pick, Mikhail Grigorenko, will get a long look whenever training camps begin.
With that much inexperience down the middle, the Sabres could struggle offensively and on the penalty kill.
Experienced scoring depth is also lacking on the wings, as left winger Thomas Vanek and right winger Jason Pominville are the only reliable scorers at those positions.
Right winger Drew Stafford was awarded a four-year, $16-million contract last summer largely on the basis of his 31-goal performance in 2010-11, but failed to play up to that contract in 2011-12, with only 20 goals in 80 games. His performance was grist for the trade rumor mill throughout last season.
The Sabres will need better from Leino, who inked a six-year, $27-million deal as a UFA in 2011. He lurched through a pitiful eight-goal, 25-point performance season, a far cry from his 19-goal, 53-point effort with Philadelphia the season before.
Left winger Marcus Foligno – who had 13 points in as many games as a late-season call-up – has promise, but it remains to be seen how he’ll do over the course of a full season.
If most of these young forwards struggle this season, the Sabres will be in real trouble, putting significant pressure on Regier to make a move or two.
Doing so, however, could cost him some of that promising talent he hopes to build around in the coming years.
Stafford’s name will undoubtedly resurface in trade chatter, especially if his inconsistency continues, but that (along with his expensive contract) won’t attract many suitors.
Then there’s the seemingly unthinkable: trading Miller. Rumors appeared in late-November that claimed he wanted out of Buffalo, which he subsequently denied.
The Sabres possess a good backup in Jhonas Enroth, but he’d have to out-play Miller to make the latter expendable.
It’s possible Miller will request a trade, but he’s given no indication he’s considered that option.
Ownership resisted replacing Regier and Ruff this summer, but if the Sabres struggle through another season with no apparent fix available, they could end up paying the price.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News, Kukla’s Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.