After a week-long sojourn against neutral, Western Conference based foes, the Canadiens are back to facing their true competition this week. First up, the Buffalo Sabres, a familiar foe, at least in the regular season.
We all know Buffalo quite well. Despite the offseason moves, this team has been one that has played virtually the same style of fast, aggressive hockey with excellent goaltending since the lockout. In recent years, they've made a point of adding some extra size and nastiness to their forward lines, and with one great draft selection they completely changed the look of their defence corps from unheralded two-way European players like Henrik Tallinder, Tony Lydman and our own Jaroslav Spacek to one built around the mammoth in the making that is Tyler Myers.
The Sabres were one of 'the' stories of the 2011 offseason. A wealthy new owner took over and immediately took steps to change the image of the Sabres from being, uh, 'thrifty' to being a first class organization that the people of Buffalo could be proud of. So Buffalo went from a team that tried to draw revenue sharing to one that put themselves over the salary cap: they acquired Robyn Regehr ($4.02m cap), along with the bloated Ales Kotalik contract ($3m), from the Calgary Flames, and hit the free agency market in a big way by signing Christian Ehrhoff (10 years, $40m) and Ville Leino (6 years, $27m) to massive, front-loaded contracts. Before the season began, they gave Tyler Myers a seven year contract extension at a $5.5m cap hit.
Oh yeah, and they finally ditched the last remaining remnants of the awful Buffaslug. I mean, look at the uniforms in the picture. Aside from the stupid numbers on the front, they're quite sharp.
They were a good team before, and while they did lose some key players to make room for the new guys, they are more competitive as a result of the makeover. More importantly, they seem much better prepared to keep the talent that they develop, which has been significant in keeping the team competitive in the past. This year, our panel pointed to the Sabres as one of the Canadiens' main competitors in the Northeast Division, and tonight is the first game of the season series. Here are three things of note for the Buffalo Sabres this year:
For the 2011-12 season, the Buffalo Sabres committed that much money in guaranteed, one-way contracts (and a buyout) to their payroll. Included in that is $10m for Christian Ehrhoff, $6m for Ville Leino, $6.4m for Thomas Vanek, $6.25m for Ryan Miller, $4.25m for Andrej Sekera (currently on their third defensive pairing), and $5.075m combined for minor leaguers Ales Kotalik and Shaone Morrisonn. Not included in the figures are the players who made the team on two-way contracts, including Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers, Luke Adam, Matt Ellis, and Marc-Andre Gragnani. Including those players puts the Sabres projected player payroll at close to $78m if you include player bonuses for Adam and Myers. This means the Sabres are out-spending the Canadiens this year by upwards of $14-$15m on player personnel. And it's not stopping: Tyler Myers' contract extension will see the Sabres send out $12m in 2012-13 to Myers and the IRS.
2. Improved depth in every position could give Miller a rest.
The Sabres enter 2011-12 rather healthy, using the same 18 skaters every game so far, making every Canadiens fan rather jealous. Sure, the versatile Jochen Hecht is injured, but I'm sure if the Canadiens only had, say, Andrei Kostitsyn on the IR right now we'd be feeling pretty comfortable. The Sabres are built to compete right through an 82 game schedule, and this could give them some breathing room when it comes to the crunch time and making the playoffs. Adding to that, young Jhonas Enroth is much, much more capable than Patrick Lalime, giving the Sabres a goaltending duo much more like the Ryan Miller-Martin Biron combination they boasted post-lockout. Since 2006-07, Ryan Miller has played 368 games, including playoffs and the 2010 Olympics. That's an average of 73.6 appearances in meaningful games per season. Miller is now a 31 year old superstar, and while he has proven he can handle a high workload, reducing his regular season schedule can only be seen as a wise move at this point.
3. Suddenly, Vanek isn't wilting under the weight of his contract anymore.
In 2007, the Sabres lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency. The Edmonton Oilers saw the departures and decided to take a run at the team's top young forward, Thomas Vanek, fresh off an 84 point season. Vanek signed an offer sheet at over a $7m cap hit that the Sabres grudgingly matched. Vanek's point totals dropped, although his goal scoring didn't dip too badly considering the losses at center, but he recorded three straight seasons of under 65 points, not exactly a high value return for a franchise that was struggling to keep up with rising salaries. Last year, however, Vanek broke through for 32 goals and 73 points, and added 5 goals in their 7 game playoff series. To start 2011-12, Vanek is on fire, with 3 goals and 7 points in the team's first four games, on a line with Jason Pominville and rookie center Luke Adam. His 20 shots in four games ties him with Henrik Zetterberg for the league lead in shot rate. It is indeed early, but signs are that the now 27 year old Vanek is a more complete offensive threat than he was before, and is more dangerous with some high priced talent around him.
We might know the Sabres pretty well, and thought they were a tough opponent before, but all signs point to them being even tougher in 2011-12. For an up to the minute guide on how the individuals making up the Sabres are doing, check out Die By the Blade's weekly tracker.