Now that the season is over I wanted to take a look back at several of the things that made this season memorable for the Buffalo Sabres. Six moments that defined the Sabres season:
6. Derek Roy’s injury:
In December the Sabres were reeling with the league’s worst record. Then on December 23rd their leading scorer went down with an injury that all but ended his season. Fans wrote the team and season off as an opportunity to try and evaluate some of their young players while deciding which veterans to trade. However, after January 1st the team turned everything around with a 28-11-6 record that propelled them from the league’s worst record to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. There is no way to quantify the loss of Derek Roy, but the only thing you can think of is that Lindy Ruff used this as his motivation to push certain veterans, but also push young players.
Roy’s injury also came back to bite the team in the playoffs. As injuries mounted Roy was getting ready to return to the lineup. Had the Sabres advanced giving Roy several more days of practice he may have returns closer to full speed. However, injuries to Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville in the Philadelphia Flyers series drove Roy back into the lineup. He played as well as can be imagined after five months off, however a completely healthy Derek Roy would have helped the team in the game.
5. Development of Darcy’s young players:
Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers and Chris Butler all became valuable contributors to this organization throughout the course of the season, most specifically during the team’s second half surge. The addition of Marc-Andre Gragnani to the postseason lineup provided further evidence that the organization has positioned itself with some aging veterans (Vanek, Pominville, Roy) and with the addition a star top line center and top pairing defensemen the Sabres’ future looks bright.
Myers shrugged off a tough first half of the season that may be attributed to losing his partner (Henrik Tallinder) and adjusting to his new pairing. Myer’s play in the second half of the season and postseason showed promise of what Myer can become. The Sabres appear to have the makings of a Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara type player who is big, physical and can log 25+ minutes a night. Ennis finished fourth on the team with 49 points, including 20 goals while playing in all 82 games. Ennis’ skating ability and creativity have Sabres fans excited to watch his continued development. Gerbe skated in 64 games while registering 31 points during the regular season, but his play in the second half of the season into the playoffs is what has won him over with fans. Despite his 5’5” frame Gerbe skated hard every minute he was on the ice and made the most of all his ice time. His spin-o-rama goal in the win against Philadelphia at the end of the year was arguably the goal of the year. Both Gragnani and Butler provide the Sabres with the opportunity to field a very good second and/or third pairing on the blue line as they continue to mature. Butler struggled slightly against Philadelphia in the playoffs while Gragnani shined. However, I would expect that as both of these players learn from this season they will continue their growth and development.
4. Jhonas Enroth’s play while Ryan Miller was injured:
Ryan Miller going down in the midst of a playoff chase was every fan’s worst nightmare. However, the play through the 2010-11 season of Jhonas Enroth provided comfort in knowing that the team can survive without Ryan Miller. Enroth posted a 9-2-2 record with 2.73 GAA for the season including a stretch when Miller went down that included a shutout win against the Rangers and a 4-0-1 record that helped sustain the playoff rush.
People will read into the goalie situation however they want, but what fans should appreciate is that heading into the 2011-12 season the Sabres have a legitimate backup goaltender who Lindy Ruff has confidence in to play. This should allow Ryan Miller to get a rest every 5-7 games or however Lindy sees fit. Miller played in 23 consecutive games at one point this season and minimizing those long stretches should be beneficial to both Miller and the Sabres going forward.
3. Thomas Vanek’s emergence as a leader in the second half:
Forgetting that Thomas Vanek led the team in points (73) and goals (32) this season, the storyline for Thomas Vanek was his ascension to being a leader. Vanek won the right to wear an ‘A’ on his sweater this year and Vanek would be the likely candidate to wear the ‘C’ in 2011-12 after this season. There are other potential players that may be able to wear the ‘C’, most notably probably Jason Pominville who is on the ice in all key situations, but this appears to becoming Thomas Vanek’s team. Lindy Ruff has been particularly hard on Vanek for the past several seasons and demanded more from him which Vanek delivered upon this year. Vanek improved his two-way play and is still their most effective offensive player. If the Sabres can find a way to bring in a #1 center to play along Vanek the team would markedly improve. Who doesn’t want to see a Vanek-Richards/Spezza-Stafford line?
2. The playoff run
A season once thought for dead made a turn around after the New Year to make a run that left the team in the seventh position in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The team gelled together and a variety of different players carried the team at time from Ryan Miller’s March, Jhonas Enroth’s relief appearance, Drew Stafford’s hot streak and Thomas Vanek’s resurgence. The 28-11-6 record was the league’s second best record behind Vancouver. Even as the trade deadline approached the direction the team would take was unsure. The addition of Brad Boyes at the deadline provided a short term spark that the team carried through until the playoff clinching win against the Flyers.
1. Terry Pegula buys the Buffalo Sabres:
February 22, 2011. Terry Pegula reignited passion for the Buffalo Sabres. The team had improved their play and was on the cusp of being a playoff contender, however fans remained cautiously optimistic as to how the team should approach the trade deadline. Pegula’s purchase of the Sabres is a fan. He is a passionate fan of the team and isn’t running the team like a business. He is running it more like a fantasy hockey team assembled to win. “Winning is not a goal, it is a belief” were the word uttered by Terry Pegula that have been embraced by fans. “The purpose of the Buffalo Sabres is to win the Stanley Cup”. Pegula’s passion for the Sabres is well documented and it is that passion that will help fuel his desire to bring a championship to the city of Buffalo.
Stephen Ross (Miami Dolphins), Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks) and Mickey Arison (Miami Heat) are the only owners according to Forbes that are wealthier than Terry Pegula. Pegula is almost twice as wealthy as the next hockey owner (Detroit’s Mike Ilitch). My point is not to dwell on Pegula’s wealth, but more to reiterate his point that Terry Pegula is not the owner of the Buffalo Sabres to make money. Terry Pegula is the owner of the Buffalo Sabres because he wants to win the Stanley and he possesses the financial resources necessary to make Buffalo ‘Hockey Heaven’. With Terry Pegula as owner it opens up a world of free agency that fans in Buffalo were never accustomed to and improvements to amenities that players never expected.
The 2011-12 will most definitely be defined as the season that the Pegula family bought the Buffalo Sabres. As much as it appears to be Terry’s team, behind the scenes he and those close to him will let you know that this is a family affair along with his wife and children which he wants to bring that family environment throughout the organization.
When looking back at this season in five to ten years nothing else may be remembered other than Terry Pegula’s purchase, however the remainder of the emergence of Vanek as a leader and the play of the young players could be what helped build the foundation for this group to reach Pegula’s desire for a Stanley Cup in Buffalo.