In Part III of our Sabres Season Preview, Bradley Gelber and Brandon Hess will answer questions surrounding the most enigmatic unit on this Buffalo squad, the forwards.
1.) Chris Drury, and Daniel Briere are ancient history, and now Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad have been shipped out. Has this team done enough to restock the cupboard at center? What expectations should there be for Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis?
Bradley: Unfortunately when you look at this team as a whole, center is still a glaring weakness. Taking a look at the Sabres current roster the only “true” healthy centers on the team right now are Cody Hodgson and Steve Ott (with Luke Adam & possibly Mikhail Grigorenko waiting in the wings). Both Cody McCormick and Nathan Gerbe (who rotates between LW & C) are injured for the start of the season. Leino, Ennis and the reacquired Jochen Hecht can all man the pivot if need be as well. The point I’m getting at is while the team has guys who “can” play center, it doesn’t mean that’s either their natural or best fit. In terms of expectations from CoHo and Enzo with Roy and Goose gone, the team will really be relying on them to step up. Had this been a regular year, I think Hodgson would’ve had the breakout season everyone expects after having a full offseason to get even more comfortable with the team. Rushing through a mini-camp and jumping back out for a condensed 48 game schedule, I think he may take some time to really mesh with his line before elevating to first line status. Ennis on the other hand should be ready to go. Ironically he played in exactly 48 games last season amassing 34 points, so in his third season with the big boys we’ll see where his maturity level stands.
Brandon: It’s a two fold question, in the short term I think the answer is no, however in the long term I think they’ve done well to solidify themselves down the middle. Maybe I’m overly cautious with kids, but I’d much prefer Mikhail Grigorenko playing in Quebec this year than Buffalo. Hodgson is primed for a breakout campaign, and we all saw how much more comfortable Ennis looked at center down the stretch last season. Both players are capable of putting up 40+ points in a 48 game season. The third line center role is one where Lindy Ruff will have to put a square peg into a round hole and hope the edges smooth out over time. Jochen Hecht is the best fit for that role in the time being, as he has had success at center in the past under Ruff, and is very responsible defensively. Steve Ott can fill in there from time to time, but I don’t think anyone wants to see Ville Leino near the face-off dot after the unmitigated disaster of a time he had at center last year. This third line pivot slot is tailor made for Zemgus Girgensons down the road, which is why I think the Sabres will be loaded down the middle in a year or two when both Grigorenko and Girgensons are with the big club. For this season however, they’ll have to be resourceful.
2.) After amassing 13 points in just 14 games with the Sabres last season, what will we see out of sophomore Marcus Foligno? Can the Foligno/Ennis/Stafford line re-ignite their late season chemistry?
Bradley: I believe Marcus Foligno is the real deal. People get into the hype of sophomore slumps and all that. Not that his AHL stats will necessarily transfer to the NHL, but in 33 games with the Amerks this season so far, he has 27 points (10g, 17a). Comparing those to his end of the season stats last year, he isn’t far off from being a point-a-game guy. I worry about consistency issues because of his and Ennis’ youth, especially when you pair them with Stafford, who is often one of, if not the most, streaky player on the Sabres. I think the line can certainly recreate last season’s chemistry if Ennis steps up and takes on that leadership role I discussed in question 1. I like their combinations of size, skill and speed since it makes it h hard for a defensive pairing to counterbalance such different attributes.
Brandon: I’m really hoping this line gets off to a fast start because it has the potential to be one of the most cohesive trios the Sabres have trotted on the ice in a long time. They truly compliment one another so well, with Ennis being the shifty playmaker with terrific vision, Foligno providing the big body on the forecheck and in front of the net, and Stafford playing the role of the sniper. I don’t see any reason for Foligno to have a sophomore slump, and more importantly I think the presence of Foligno and Ennis might finally allow Stafford to simplify his game and become much more consistent. Drew has the innate ability to make vulcanized rubber and twine meet, and with Foligno doing the dirty work down low, and Ennis’s playmaking skills all Stafford needs to do is skate to the open ice and set up shop.
3.) Before last season Darcy Regier brought in hit machine Robyn Regehr, this past off-season the Sabres traded for uber pest Steve Ott and acquired the behemoth John Scott. Does Buffalo have the right pieces in place to change their league wide perception of being a soft team?
Bradley: This is one question I’ve been batting around in my own head since we got Ott. To be honest, I don’t think the Sabres do have enough pieces to be viewed as a “tough” team, but I think they’ve come a long way from the team that couldn’t defend themselves. Both Ott & Kaleta seem to be shoe-ins to play every game, but a guy like Scott will find himself in more of the Andrew Peters role. He’ll come in when we play teams that are known for their physical play, but he won’t be a night in and night out type of guy. The issue with guys like that is when they do play, you’re naturally disrupting the chemistry of one of the lines, because you obviously need to sit someone in order to all Scott to play. Also, you need to make sure they aren’t an absolute liability on the ice either. I think Buffalo will still be identified by their youth and goaltending, not their toughness, but I do think the team can hold it’s own if need be.
Brandon: This argument tears away at me like a flesh eating parasite. Yes the Sabres aren’t the Bad Boy Bruins, or the Broadstreet Bullies, but too many times Buffalo fans place the blame for losses on their apparent lack of physical play. When in fact it’s as simple as the Sabres haven’t been as good as their opponents. If Buffalo is out-skating the other team, passing tape to tape, defending well in their own zone, getting solid goaltending, and not allowing stretch passes through the neutral zone they’re going to win more games than they’ll lose regardless of how many teeth they extract from their opponent. Being tough isn’t always about hitting and dropping the gloves, it’s also about fighting battles in the corner for the puck, being persistent on the backcheck, and challenging every shot. The reason I went off on this tangent is because I’m worried that every night Scott is in the lineup it will be at the expense of a more talented forward, and frankly the Sabres aren’t deep enough to waste a roster spot on a big body just to send a message that they are a measurably “tougher” team. Just step on the ice and work harder than your opponent for 60 minutes, that’s the toughest team to play against.
4.) Thomas Vanek had a disappointing 26 goal performance in 2011, will he have a bounce back year and top last season’s totals in just 48 games?
Bradley: TV is and has been since he joined the team my favorite player, so it’s hard for me to not be biased. However, as a writer I’ll do my best to approach this question in as fair a manner as possible. Looking at Vanek’s stats over the past 3 seasons since his 40-goal campaign in 08-09, he has been fairly consistent from a goal-scoring standpoint. 28 goals in 71 games in 09-10, 32 goals in 80 games in 10-11 & then the 26 goals in 78 games in 11-12. We all know he has the ability to be a 40-goal scorer year in and out, but it’s his heart and effort that is often called into play. Unlike CoHo, I think a shorter season may benefit Vanek to prevent him from getting bored or lazy midway through. In his best season (06-07) he has 43 goals in 82 games, so do I think he’ll top 26 in 48? No, that’s asking an awful lot, but I do think he’ll have a much better year offensively.
Brandon: Let’s call a spade a spade, Thomas Vanek is a power-play specialist. Go ahead and start with the fist wringing, but first take a look at the numbers. In the 06’, 07’, and 08’ seasons Thomas averaged 40 goals per season. During those three seasons he tallied 54 power-play goals, an average of 18 per year representing 45% of his goals during those seasons In the past three seasons Thomas has only averaged 28 goals a season, and has only racked up 31 power-play goals or roughly 10 a season or 36% of his goals. Relative to percentage of overall goals, Vanek scored more even strength tallies last year (16 of 26, or 62%) than he did in his 40 goal season of 08′ (20 of 40 or 50%). If he’s going to return to the status of an elite scorer the Sabres as a team must elevate the play of their special teams. I’m very optimistic about the Sabres forward corps having a strong season, and I think Vanek will spearhead the group, but if he’s going to top 26 goals it’ll be because the Buffalo power-play is enjoying a renaissance.
5.) What are your feelings on the Hecht signing, and where does he fit in up front?
Bradley: Unlike many Sabres fans, I don’t really have a problem with it. According to Pominville, Hecht looks like the player of old. The two have been line-mates for Adler Mannheim during the lockout. Receiving a ringing endorsement from the Sabres captain in addition to the injuries to Gerbe, McCormick, and youngster Corey Tropp, adding a plug and play veteran makes sense. With such a confined season there really isn’t much time to call up a young guy who will have a learning curve. If you go on a cold stretch during the short season, you can pretty much kiss the playoffs goodbye. Hecht is versatile, and can fill-in at center or wing depending where the Sabres need him. Also, I’m guessing there wasn’t much league-wide interest in him, so the Sabres were probably able to sign him for fairly cheap.
Brandon: Maybe it’s the German heritage in me, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Jochen’s. I’m also confident that Darcy Regier is competent enough to have not even entertained the notion of Hecht returning without being guaranteed he is 100% healthy and seemingly past his most recent concussion. The Sabres don’t really have a better option for the third line center and Jochen has experience there. I’m not expecting 15 goals or 30 points, but if he can contribute timely goals, provide his usual solid defense, and perform admirably for an out of position winger in the face-off dot, then it’s a good move. Jochen also helped recruit fellow German Christian Ehrhoff, and he likely eased the transition for Alexander Sulzer, so it will help having him back in the locker-room as well.
6.) Now that Hecht is back in the fold, which of the fringe forwards will make the team?
Bradley: Gerbe, Tropp & McCormick are hurt and even if Grigorenko sticks with the team, depth is an issue for the Sabres right now. You’re looking at having to call-up Kevin Porter from the Amerks if another injury were to take place. That being said I think you’re looking at Foligno, Stafford, Ennis, Kaleta, Vanek, Pominville, Ott, Leino, Ellis, Scott & Hecht. I think once guys like Gerbe & McCormick get healthy it’ll be interesting to see whether they unseat players who start the season or have to wait for an injury to someone else. It’s also important to note that Luke Adam did not even receive a training camp invite. It’s been a long fall from a guy that looked like he’d be a fixture in blue & gold for years to come. I still think the Sabres may try to acquire another true center at some point this season, but that all hinges on whether Grigorenko blows everyone away and makes the team.
Brandon: The top six are pretty much set, but the bottom nine is a crapshoot. If Hecht is at center it’s likely Leino and Ott are his wingers, leaving Kaleta, Ellis, and Scott to round out the fourth line. Cody McCormick and Nathan Gerbe don’t appear to be ready for game one, but aren’t too far away either. I expect both to crack the line-up when healthy, at the expense of Scott and Ellis. I’d like to see Kevin Porter on the fourth line at some point this season. These mock lines are of course sans Grigorenko as I’m still holding out hope Buffalo does the right thing and lets him finish the year in Quebec. The loss of Corey Tropp for the season cannot be underestimated, as he would have provided a spark to the fourth line with his energy and seemingly reckless abandon. The log-jam of defenders, and murkiness of the bottom six lends me to believe there is a trade on the horizon, so all bets are off once the CBA is ratified by the NHLPA.
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