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State of the Sabres, Part I
Why were the Sabres struggling earlier this season?

To say Maxim Afinogenov has been a disappointment this season would be a major understatement.

LetsGoSabres.com — I have been working on this article for quite some time. Every time I think I have a hook for my commentary, the ground shifts and new ideas flood in. First, the Buffalo Sabres were playing themselves into a high draft pick. Then the young team asserts itself and plays themselves right back into the playoff picture.

Next, I read that Campbell is done negotiating with the Sabres until season’s end and that the Sabres intend to trade him. I, like all Sabres fans, remember all too well when Briere and Drury made similar pronouncements last season. However, GM Darcy Regier soon squashes the Campbell trade speculations and rumors begin to circulate that the two sides are close to getting a deal done.

Two nights ago, the ground shifted again as the Ottawa Senators bolstered their lineup by adding Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore from the Carolina Hurricanes. The surging Sabres blasted the new look Sens 5-1 in Ottawa before coming home to shutout the Toronto Maple Leafs last night, moving the team into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
 
What is a blogger to think?

With the trade deadline two weeks away and the team battling to hold onto one of the final playoffs spots, or should I say move up a few more playoff spots, the real question facing team management and the fans is what is the future of this team; not only this season, but over the next two to three years?

The following is a three part column regarding my views on the current status of the Sabres and its future. I believe it is critical to honestly assess where one is today before making plans for the future. Part I is my assessment of why this young team is and was struggling to make the playoffs after two consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. Part II will be my perception of the core strengths of this club, finally, in Part III; I will put forth my thoughts as to what changes the team could make that will benefit the club today and in the future.

PART 1: WHY ARE (WERE) THE SABRES STRUGGLING?

At the beginning of the season, most prognosticators viewed the Sabres as a young, but experienced team that would make the adjustments to the loss of Briere and Drury and contend by year’s end. After going 0-5-5 in games from December 26, 2007 to January 16, 2008, it looked as though the team would never overcome the departures. However, since late-January the boys in Blue and Gold found their stride and played excellent team hockey; achieving an 8-0-2 mark.

This team reminds me very much of the club in the season prior to the lockout. That year the Sabres rebounded from an abysmal first half and became one of the NHL's hottest clubs in the second half. That team barely missing the playoffs, but this edition of the team possesses significantly more talent up front and far better goaltending.

One factor which has hindered the team’s progress to date is injuries, especially on defense. Of the six defensemen who started the season on the roster, half missed significant games due to injury. Kalinin missed 23 games, while stalwarts Tallinder and Spacek missed eight or more games. These injuries forced the Sabres to dress rookie Andrej Sekera for 21 games, play 19-year-old rookie Mike Weber and sign Tampa castoff Nolan Pratt.

In addition, key forwards Mair, Roy, Afinogenov, Connolly and Stafford missed and continue to miss important stretches. Afinogenov remains out of the lineup, Stafford is again sidelined with an ankle injury and Connolly will play the remainder of the season in pain due to a born spur in his hip. Rookies Patrick Kaleta and Clarke MacArthur have done an admirable job filling in for the injured forwards.

These injuries forced Coach Lindy Ruff to continually juggle his lines and defensive pairings; thereby preventing many players from developing chemistry with their new running mates. Injuries account for only some of the team's problems.

Another factor is that the youthful core of the team was not completely ready to assume the leadership roles and scoring burden. The Sabres were counting on young veteran likes Roy, Vanek, Pominville, Gaustad and Stafford to pick up much of the slack left behind by the departures of Drury and Briere.

To date most of these youngsters have risen to the occasion. Roy and Pominville are the teams leading scorers. Paille and Gaustad have emerged as fine two-way players with great futures. Drew Stafford already has exceeded last year’s points and is second on the team in game winning goals with four.

Ryan Miller, after a slow start, has been spectacular most of the season. His goals against is substantially down from last year and he seems to be gaining focus with the expanded workload.

Only two of the young players have failed to excel in their new and expanded roles. Management hoped that Nathan Paetsch would build on his solid rookie campaign and play in the third defense pairing and help quarterback the power play. Unfortunately he seems to have regressed this season and has lost his job to slow-footed free agent Nolan Pratt.

Thomas Vanek's drop in production is more troubling. By matching Edmonton’s offer for Vanek, it is clear the Regier views Vanek as the most vital cog in the future of the team. The team was clearly expecting Vanek to approximate last year's numbers and to assume great responsibility on special teams. Although Vanek has shown some flashes, he is only scoring at half last season's pace. However, after a dominating performance against Ottawa and with seven goals in his last seven games, it appears that Vanek is finally finding his touch.

Most of the blame for the team's mediocre season to date lays with the clubs more experienced veterans. Key veterans up front and on defense have failed to elevate their games and assume the leadership roles.

Of the veteran forwards, Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov's performances have been the most notably lacking. Connolly was on pace to set a personal best in points for a season with approximately 58 points. However he has not been the point-a-game scorer the Sabres envisioned and needed to replace Briere. To compound the problem, he has already missed 20 games with injuries, and due to the bone spur in his hip he will not be 100% for the remainder of the season.  

Maxim Afinogenov's play has been the most disappointing. His seven goals to date and team worst -10 have made him a liability. His 60% drop in production is impossible to replace. The team was counting on him to be the focal point on offense. Instead he has lost his frontline position to second-year man Drew Stafford. In addition, he remains sidelined with an injury, which further diminishes any trade value that he may have. Frankly, his game has not recovered since his hallway soccer injury last year.

The veterans have also let the team down on defensive. Kalinin and Lydman are two players the team counts on to quickly clear the zone, set up the transition game and support the offense. Both have struggled this year with some or all of their responsibilities; although but have improved in recent weeks.

Kalinin, once thought of as an offensive defenseman, has scored only a single goal and five assists in 33 games and is a -3, with nearly all the points earned in the last 11 games. Although scoring at a reasonable pace, Lydman leads the team in giveaways at 50. Not exactly the statistic a team wants one of its "shutdown" defenseman to be leading in.

Not all the experienced veterans have faltered. Kotalik, Hecht, Spacek and Campbell have elevated up their play. Hecht is on pace for a career year in scoring and has been rewarded with a contract extension because of his fine play and leadership. Campbell leads the team in ice time and leads the team in assists with 35. He has emerged amongst the top tier of defenseman in the NHL. Kotalik and Spacek have become two of the team’s best weapons on the power play. Unfortunately their efforts have not been enough to offset the slide in production from other key veteran players.

Despite all the problems, the Sabres have clawed their way back into contention. Miller’s fine play, the team’s backbone all season, kept the team from falling completely to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Coupled with Miller’s performance, the team’s recent surge coincided with the return to health of all seven Sabres defenseman, and the development of some chemistry on the forward lines.

On the top line, Roy, Vanek and Stafford found the chemistry they displayed late last season. All three have begun to score more regularly despite playing against the opponent’s top defensive lines. For the first time this season they have carried the play to the opponents.

Ruff’s move of Hecht to center between Pominville and rookie Clarke MacArthur created a fast scoring compliment to the first line. Like last season, Ruff now has two lines that can score quickly and take over a game. Pominville was on an eight-game scoring stretch and has been the team's best catalyst as of late.

The third and forth lines have also settled down and begun to make significant contributions. Paul Gaustad’s line with Paille and Kotalik on the wings has given the team a much more physical presence then in years past. In addition to the physical play, all three players have contributed timely goals with Paille and Kotalik amongst seven Sabres with double digits in goals.

Rookie Patrick Kaleta added some much needed vigor to Adam Mair’s energy line with Michael Ryan. Kaleta’s agitation continues to draw retaliation penalties from the opposition and the line is even adding a few goals here and there.

This team as currently constructed is good enough to make the playoff. If they continue to match the intensity they have shown over the last 10 games, they may even contend for a high seed, although the Northeast Division crown is likely out of reach. As we have seen in recent weeks, they can defeat anyone at anytime.

What Darcy Regier and management need to do now is determine how much effort they are going to put into this team to make it a true Cup contender. Given management's pension for pinching every dollar, I worry that Regier won’t make any serious moves to bolster this team for the stretch drive, such as adding another physical defenseman and a center capable of winning an important draw.

Part II of this three-part series will be posted Friday morning.

By Alan Sheldon, LGS Columnist
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