Buffalo in tough for a top-eight seed

Ryan Miller is going to have to be near perfect every night if Buffalo's offense can't improve from last season. (Michael Miller/Wikimedia Commons)

Ryan Miller is going to have to be near perfect every night if Buffalo’s offense can’t improve from last season. (Michael Miller/Wikimedia Commons)

By: Tim Kolupanowich


In taking a look at projected rankings for the 2013 NHL season, a number of sites including Left Wing Lock and The Hockey News are predicting the Buffalo Sabres to be in the top eight in the Eastern Conference. And while they may have just missed out on the big dance last season, finishing ninth, just three points behind Ottawa, it will be tough for them to make an improvement.

There are just too many questions behind this team to place them in a playoff spot; a lot of things will have to go right for them in this short burst of a season. Despite acquisitions of tough guys Steve Ott and John Scott, the team still lacks overall mental toughness. They started off the season well, but fell apart as soon as Ryan Miller was hit by Milan Lucic and no one responded. After starting the season 10-5, they failed to win two games in a row until the end of January, a stretch in which they went 11-19-5.

Ott loves aggressive play, much more than most of Buffalo’s smaller forwards who rely on skill more than scrappiness, and he should greatly improve a penalty kill that finished 19th overall (81.7%), but he has been known to go over the edge at times and become a distraction to his teammates. Scott is the biggest player on the team, but generally only plays half the games and usually for about five minutes so his addition hardly means much of anything.

There are so many questions on offense. Will Thomas Vanek return to a goal-every-other-game form? Is Cody Hodgson ready to be a number one center? Does Ville Leino come close to earning the $4.5 million contract he signed in 2011? Do youngsters Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe continue to improve? Can coach Lindy Ruff improve their middling special teams? If everything goes right, Buffalo will have a consistent supply of goals. If only a few things go right, they’ll struggle to score.

Of course it’s impossible to completely count out a team with Miller in net and he should see all but 10 of the 48 games on the schedule provided he stays healthy which is a major concern as Jhonas Enroth wasn’t able to hold down the fort when called upon last season. Since the lockout, Miller is 246-136-48 while all other Sabres goalies are a combined 66-61-17. Take away Martin Biron’s wins from ’06 and ’07 and that record falls to 33-49-13. He’ll have to have another Vezina-worth season since a defense that gave up a fifth-worst 31.4 shots a game was not improved.

They can’t afford to have to rely on a late push once again, there simply is no room in the schedule for one. And while they did make things interesting with a five-game winning streak and nine-game points streak at the end of March, a loss to 13th place Toronto in Game 79 and lackluster effort in Philadelphia in Game 81 in which they were outshot 35-26 showed they either didn’t have what it takes to make the playoffs or they simply waited too long.

There is simply no time this season to slump, so all of Buffalo’s questions will have to be answered before the first month of the season is over. After 48 games last season, Buffalo was fourteenth in the Eastern Conference with a 19-24-5 record before failing with their late push.

Most skaters need to either complete their development or improve from last season. They’ll need a lot of luck, but look for them to just miss the playoff once again.


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