The Sabres’ task this season is to prove they are tougher. Tougher to play against. Tougher to score on. Tougher to beat in Buffalo. ¶ And for fans hoping to see a big increase in goals? Tough. ¶ The Sabres expect their identity to include blue-collar buzzwords like grit, determination and stinginess. They want to wipe away their reputation as pushovers with a thick piece of sandpaper.
They began their transformation in the offseason by adding fiery Steve Ott and 6-foot-8 heavyweight John Scott. They hope the influx of toughness permeates the dressing room.
“You have to look at the overall picture where you bring in a few guys who will bring grit, who will bring toughness, who will bring team toughness,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. “In our conference and our division, we’re going to need that to be able to win. By adding those guys, I think I like our team.”
The grit comes with a price. As General Manager Darcy Regier acknowledged when he acquired Ott for playmaking center Derek Roy, the Sabres’ skill level likely will be lower.
“The goal scoring has been pretty tight and got even tighter last year,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “I don’t see that changing.”
Likely hindering the offense will be Buffalo’s youth and inexperience down the middle. Tyler Ennis, 23, is the elder statesman among the top three centers with 140 games of experience. Cody Hodgson is 22 and first-round pick Mikhail Grigorenko is 18.
“We’ve placed a few gambles,” Ruff said.
The Sabres are betting their defense and goaltending can carry them. They return seven blue-liners and have added T.J. Brennan, who blossomed in Rochester during the lockout. Ryan Miller finished last season on a 20-6-5 run.
“I’m hoping we’re a team that is better defensively,” Pominville said. “If we play well defensively with the goalie we have, we give ourselves a tremendous chance of winning.
“Ryan likes to know what he’s going to see in front him and know what his defensemen are going to do. He can read off that easily, so if we can bring that to him I think it will definitely benefit our game. The end result is going to be us winning more games.”
Since this is Buffalo, it makes sense that wings take center stage.
Pominville and Thomas Vanek will flank Hodgson after combining for 56 of Buffalo’s 211 goals last season. Grigorenko will look left and see Ott, who has 19- and 22-goal seasons on his resume. On the rookie’s right will be Ville Leino, who is eager to bounce back after a torturous first season in Buffalo that included a failed experiment at center.
“I like playing the right wing,” Leino said. “I get a little more time on the offense. I can do my cycle game, work in the corners, hold on to the puck. That’s where I’m best at.
“I like a guy like Otter. Big body, good shot, knows how to score, goes to the net, knows how to make plays. He’s exactly the type of player you want to play with.”
The make-or-break line is Ennis between Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford. They combined for 21 goals and 49 points in just 13 games together at the end of last year. Duplicating that will be nearly impossible, but the Sabres need significant offense.
“One of our strengths as a line is taking advantage of other teams’ turnovers and having that quick-strike offense, that quick transition getting going the other way,” Stafford said. “We have the speed and skill to make those kind of plays.”
The Sabres hope 6-8 Tyler Myers stands out. Injuries limited the defenseman to 55 games last year. When the soon-to-be 23-year-old is healthy, he can be a game changer.
“When he is real fresh and strong, he is a dominant force out there,” Ruff said. “You don’t have to get much heavier, but you need to put some stamina in your tank and you probably need to get stronger.”
Christian Ehrhoff, who had at least 42 points in each of the previous three seasons, slipped to 32 last year. He and Andrej Sekera need to provide more offense.
Robyn Regehr and Alexander Sulzer should be more comfortable playing in front of Miller during their second seasons in Buffalo.
“If we can keep our goals against down and get up around three goals for, that’s a pretty good picture,” Ruff said. “I see a defense, when it was healthy, our record was really good. I think that’s our strength. I think our unknown maybe is the youth we have at center ice right now, but that youth could really serve us well.”