PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 15: Drew Stafford #21 of the Buffalo Sabres is congratulated by teammates on the bench after scoring against of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third period during the game on October 15, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
After making a big splash in free agency one summer ago, Darcy Regier and the Sabres have changed their strategy. Can their new trade acquisitions hoist Buffalo back into the postseason?
Last offseason, the Buffalo Sabres took a radical departure from business as usual, thanks to the deep pockets of new owner Terry Pegula.
Investing in their future by re-signing Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers, and Nathan Gerbe to multi-year deals, they also opened the club's pocketbook to sign Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino to massive deals -- in particular Ehrhoff's 10 year, $40 million deal that paid the blueliner $10 million last season plus a $8 million signing bonus.
Despite Leino underwhelming for much of the season -- the $4.5 million dollar man produced just 8 goals and 17 assists, the Sabres started strong, winning both of their European Premiere games and six of their first ten in North America. The club seemed set to content in the Northeast Division until the middle of November, when their fortunes abruptly changed.
It wasn't simply that Milan Lucic trucked Ryan Miller -- the 6-2 blowout loss and lack of response from the Buffalo bench seemed to expose a major flaw in their mental toughness. Unable to respond in the heat of the moment, they would struggle to regain their balance for the rest of the season. That lack of consistency would lead them on a slow spiral that ended with the club missing the postseason by three points despite dealing at the deadline for talented forward Cody Hodgson and journeyman defenseman Alexander Sulzer from the Canucks.
Looking to regain the swagger that took them to the postseason in 2010 and 2011, many fans wondered if the club would make the decision to part ways with their long-tenured coach and GM combo, but both Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier would be retained by Pegula shortly after the season came to an end.
Honing The Blade
Instead of diving into the free agent frenzy, Regier made the decision to shake things up via trade. Dealing with the Calgary Flames to acquire an additional first round pick, the Sabres picked up a pair of talented young centers, Zemgus Girgensons and the gifted but highly debated Mikhail Grigorenko. Regier also made the decision to trade the talented but occasionally injury prone Derek Roy to Dallas in exchange for uber-pest Steve Ott, perhaps hoping that he will help to boost their testicular fortitude.
The club also re-upped another agitator when they signed Patrick Kaleta to a three-year deal, and sent a message that they intend to back up Ott and Kaleta's antics by signing 6'8, 270 pound John Scott. The former Ranger and Blackhawk is almost certainly there to provide a dedicated enforcer, since his hockey skills are generally restricted to "Hit the puck carrier really hard" and "punch someone in the middle of his face."
Interestingly, the move to trade Roy for Ott didn't hurt the Sabres' offense as much as one might think -- Ott delivered a 39 point campaign in Dallas compared to Roy's 44.
That said, despite the apparent plan to increase the club's physicality and grit versus opponents, they did only score 218 goals last season -- 11th in the Eastern Conference, though their 230 goals allowed did tie for eighth place in the East. As mentioned, Ott and Roy are a closer swap than most would expect, and Hodgson could easily add more scoring. That said, the club needs to see Leino rebound from his underwhelming campaign, and achieve something closer to the potential they paid him for. Likewise, seeing blueliner Tyler Myers returning to the 10-goal, 25-plus assist scoring ability he displayed when he entered the league would be a major boost after an injury shortened 2011-2012 campaign.
With Ryan Miller in net, plus a proven backup in Jhonas Enroth, the Sabres remain strong in goal. Even better, they have continued to maintain a strong asset in their defensive corps. They could easily be in position to contend again, if they can find some scoring talent to go with their newly acquired toughness... and SB Nation's own Zachary Zielonka suggests they might just be able to do that by trading some of their depth on the blue line.
Regier has been known for years as a man who is willing to be patient and look for the long game -- it's part of why his moves to acquire Ehrhoff and Leino were so shocking. If the league's longest tendered GM has a few more surprises up his sleeve to go with his moves to restock the team's prospects, Pegulamania might be right back on the minds of fans all over Upstate New York.
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