After taking a look at Ryan Miller and the goaltending in Part I of our preview series, we’ll now examine the Buffalo defensemen, review last season's blueline woes and discuss how the return of Teppo Numminen and the acquisition of Craig Rivet will affect the squad this coming season.
Ryan Miller's problems in net last season were not entirely of his own making. He received little support from the defensemen playing in front of him. The 2,104 shots Miller faced last season were the second most in the NHL. With few exceptions, Buffalo’s blueliners failed to effectively support the offense, clear the defensive zone and cope with relentless forecheckers.
Part of the explanation for the ineffective play was injuries. The Sabres dressed 12 different defensemen last season. Team leader Teppo Numminen played only the final regular season game after recovering from heart surgery. Veteran Dmitri Kalinin only suited up for 46 games and was completely ineffective when active.
The rejuvenated Jaroslav Spacek only played 60 games, while sophomore Nathan Paetsch managed only 59 games. After a promising rookie campaign, Paetsch failed to improve on his physical game, and Ruff's seemed to lose confidence in the youngster as the season wore on.
While Henrik Tallinder managed to play in 71 contests, his nagging injuries significantly limited his mobility and therefore greatly reduced his offensive contributions and defensive stopping power. In fact, of all the Sabres' defensemen, only Toni Lydman played the entire season and this lead to a career best offensive output. Unfortunately, he also led the team in giveaways.
These extensive injuries effectively eliminated the continuity of the three defense pairings. With the loss of Numminen, the team also lost his on-ice leadership and calming presence. Regier replaced Teppo with Tampa castoff Nolan Pratt. Pratt brought a physical presence and veteran leadership to the squad, but ultimately his lack of foot speed and hands couldn't replace Numminen's excellent transition game.
The bright spots were simply few and far behind last season. Spacek did return to his pre-Sabres form and became a leader on defense through his excellent work in transition and booming shot on the power play. His 22:58 minutes per game lead the team.
Another bright spot was the first half offensive production of the Brian Campbell. Campbell continued his development into one the NHL's best offensive defenseman. Unfortunately he was traded before the deadline because of the Sabres inability to sign him to a contract extension.
Two rookies also made an extremely positive impression on the Sabres and their fans. Rookie Mike Weber played 16 games for the Sabres. He played excellent positional defense while bringing a physical presence not seen since Jay McKee left town. He finished the year with a phenomenal +12 rating.
Fellow rookie Andrej Sekera played in 37 contests garnering eight points and a +5 rating. Once paired with Weber his game blossomed. Sekera's speed and puck-handling skills remind me of a young Campbell, but I believe that Sekera should be superior to Campbell on the defensive side. Sekera, a +10 in his last 16 games, and Weber were skating approximately 19 minutes per game toward season’s end and many argued that they were Buffalo's best defensive pairing.
To shore up this squad, Regier made several key off-season decisions. First he decided not to retain Nolan Pratt or Dmitri Kalinin. He then made his biggest move of the off-season by trading two draft picks to San Jose for proven defenseman Craig Rivet.
Rivet, 33, a 12-year NHL veteran, brings a physical dimension that the Sabres lacked until Weber became a regular late last season. He also brings a surprising amount of offense. His 35 points last season would have led the Sabres, with the exception of the departed Campbell. Another bonus is that he has three years remaining on his current contract at a "reasonable" $3.5 million per season.
In a final move, Regier re-signed veteran leader Teppo Numminen. Numminen's leadership, calming presence and excellent transitional skills where sadly missing last season. Despite his age, those skills remain intact.
With the additions of Rivet and Numminen to the core of returning players, the defense should be markedly better this coming season. For the first time in recent memory, the team has significant depth on defense. Buffalo enters camp with nine players with NHL experience featuring a good mix of young up-and-comers and proven veterans.
We can pencil in veterans Spacek, Lydman, Tallinder, Numminen and Rivet for five of the defense slots. That leaves Sekera, Weber, Paetsch and possibly Funk to compete for the two remaining slots. Odds are that Paetsch's experience and Sekera's puck handling skills should win them the two remaining slots. Weber would likely be the first player recalled from Portland in the event of an injury. However, if Paetsch falters during camp, Weber could easily find himself in Buffalo.
» Part III: Previewing the Sabres Offense