For the first time since 1997, Lindy Ruff was not behind the bench when the Sabres opened their season Wednesday night. He is now the coach of the Dallas Stars, the team he lost the Stanley Cup to in 1999. New coach Ron Rolston enters his first full season with the Sabres after taking over when Ruff was fired in February.
Rolston has coached many of the players on this year’s roster since he was the head coach of the Rochester Americans from 2011-13. This will be a huge key for how much success the team will have this year. Players such as Marcus Foligno, Luke Adam and Corey Tropp already should have some familiarity with Rolston’s coaching style.
The average age for the Sabres is 25, which compared to the other teams in the NHL, makes it a young team. The oldest player on the team is 34-year-old defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who was acquired from the Devils for prospect Riley Boychuk, and was a member of the Sabres during the Danny Briere and Chris Drury era. During those years, Tallinder helped the team make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2006-07 season. In 2009, Tallinder was a mentor to defenseman Tyler Myers, who was entering his rookie season. At that time, Myers, a 19-year-old out of Texas, benefited from being on the same line with the veteran. He had 11 goals and added 37 assists that season. But Myers has struggled over the past couple of seasons. If those two can connect again and if Myers can stay healthy, Myers’ game will definitely make the Sabres a better team.
Other players to watch for on the blue line are Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Weber. Ehrhoff, who made his team debut in 2011, hasn’t lived up to his 10-year $40 million deal yet, but I think this year he will be able to turn it around. The former Vancouver Canuck had a monster season in 2009-10 with 14 goals and 36 assists, but struggled last season with only five goals and 17 assists in the shortened season due to the NHL lockout.
Last year also was chaotic for the Sabres with Ruff leaving midway through the season. Ehrhoff and the rest of the defense had to learn a new system with only three months left in the season. With a full season ahead under Rolston, Ehrhoff should feel more comfortable and make a huge impact not only defensively but also offensively as we’ve seen him score 28 goals combined in his last two seasons with the Canucks.
So far the Sabres have been able to rely on Weber as one of their top defenders, and I think that he will be a top performer again this year. He looked good with two assists in Buffalo’s 3-0 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in their preseason home finale. The Pittsburgh native, who recently signed a three-year $4.5 million extension, may not be a scoring defenseman, but when the time comes, Weber isn’t afraid to throw his body around to make a play. His best season so far with the team was his rookie year in 2010-11 when he contributed 13 assists. Hopefully this season he will be able to get back to that type of performance. With rookie Rasmus Ristolainen making the final roster, the Sabres defense will be pretty solid this season.
Looking at the offense, one thing’s for sure: Thomas Vanek is the leader. The 29-year-old Austrian has made a huge impact on the team since his debut in the 2005-06 season. He has 250 career goals entering this season. I hope this will not be his final season in Buffalo. He and Cody Hodgson were able to find success on the same line and if those two are on the same line with Drew Stafford or Corey Tropp (who hopefully will get back soon after suffering a broken jaw), Vanek will be successful again for the Sabres. Two other veterans to watch are Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. Since Day One, like Vanek, these two have been big contributors. Ennis so far has 48 career goals, and Foligno contributed 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) last season. Hopefully, the two will find the back of the net often. The one offensive player fans are anxious to see is someone who didn’t make the opening day roster: 18-year-old Buffalo native Justin Bailey. We’ve seen in the past how successful local guys can be in the NHL with Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks as the prime example. After being coached by Pat Lafontaine the past few years, Bailey will be an interesting piece of the Sabres offensive puzzle.
The final storyline for this season’s team and probably the biggest one of them all is how long goaltender Ryan Miller will be with the team. You can’t argue that Miller kept the team competitive in a handful of games last season, but the offense couldn’t connect in those games. Miller brings stability as a veteran. He has been through the highs (the Briere-Drury years) and the lows (losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006-07 and missing the playoffs in recent years). If you have half of your bedroom walls dedicated to this Buffalo sports star, you’re hoping he stays here for the rest of his career. Having a great goaltender like Miller is a huge advantage for being a successful team.
The Sabres are in a more difficult division since the Detroit Red Wings were added in the league’s realignment. Rounding out the Atlantic Conference are Tampa Bay, Florida, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Boston. Many will argue that Detroit is one of the best franchises not only in the NHL but in all American sports, but the Sabres should beat the Lightning, Panthers and Maple Leafs. The Sabres should win most of their matches against the Canadiens but will struggle against the Senators and Bruins. I think the Sabres will enter the playoffs as a dark horse and take either the seventh or eighth seed. And if you’re a true Sabres fan, you should be crossing your fingers for the team to win a Stanley Cup before announcer Rick Jeanneret retires.
Joseph Kraus is a sophomore at North Tonawanda High School.