By Ch2 Sports Director Ed Kilgore
Sure it's disappointing if you're a long-suffering Sabres fan; it turns out to be the SOT, "same old thing". They tease us with a strong run to hit the playoffs as one of the so-called "hottest teams in the NHL", and then in the one game that matters, they get their doors blown off by the Philadelphia Flyers in game 7.
Season over, first round exit, again.
All of this is true. But a little perspective never hurts, and the Flyers were a decided favorite going into this series for a reason, first of all. They played in the Stanley Cup finals a year ago and were clearly the top team in the Eastern Conference throughout most of the year before a late season swoon allowed Washington overtake them for the #1 seed.
But even without star defenseman Chris Pronger at full speed, and even without leading goal scorer Jeff Carter, and even with a trio of goaltenders who often couldn't get out of their own way, the Flyers remained a very formidable opponent for anybody.
The Sabres only edge going into the series was in goal, and despite some grumbling about a couple goals allowed by Ryan Miller, there is no question Miller literally stole two games in the series. One goal is enough against the Flyers? Well, that was the case not once, but twice. That's outright larceny.
The biggest positive surprises for the Sabres almost all involved young players who are nowhere near as good as they will be, and probably sooner rather than later. Rookie defenseman Marc Andre Gragnani had a goal and six assists and made us wonder why he wasn't with the big club earlier.
Gragnani is a good example of the depth the Sabres organization has, as a third round draft pick in 2005 who is only now coming into his own. He had 60 points in 63 games at Portland, almost unheard of for a defense, although Gragnani did play some at left wing as well. Gragnani is a restricted free agent at 24 and will deserve a raise from his current $500,000 salary.
He'll be a defenseman in Buffalo and a difference-maker next season.
Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe are two of the smallest players on the team, but as we've learned from the Flyers (and, yeh, I know, former Sabre) Danny Briere, it isn't always size that matters in the NHL. Ennis and Gerbe have speed, grit, and imagination. They are fierce competitors, and the type player that make the Sabres future easily anticipated. Gerbe, only 23, is a restricted free agent who'll get a boost from his current $850,000 deal. With two goals apiece, they were the only Sabres other than Thomas Vanek with more than one goal.
A lot is expected of Vanek, but he is still a force and his 5 goals in the series were by no means a disappointment. He was constantly punished physically by the Flyers "D" and showed a lot of courage by taking the pounding and delivering some key goals. To be fair though, Vanek was also on the ice for several Flyers goal at even strength.
Although he had some early sophomore struggles and also had some ups and downs in the playoff series, young defenseman Tyler Myers is an emerging NHL star who also showed a physical side we hadn't seen before. Knocking Pronger flat on his backside when the two were face to face is an image that remains fixed in my mind and no doubt the minds of many others as well. Myers was the Sabres second in penalty minutes with 16, so clearly he wasn't shying away from the physical side.
Miller is still a key to the Sabres future, no matter how impressed we were with the late season showing of young Jonas Enroth. In fact, the emergence of Enroth can only help take some of the pressure of Miller next season. It won't be easy to keep Enroth, who at 22 is a restricted free agent making just under $900,000. Somebody may make the Sabres overpay to keep him. But Miller can't do it alone. In game 7, for example, he more than held his ground as the Flyers were simply all over the Sabres, outshooting them 16-2, and a weak-looking goal just before the end of the period doesn't detract from that.
Had Miller, for instance, played for the Flyers, it would have been a very short series.
There were disappointments for sure. Brad Boyes all but disappeared until scoring a meaningless power play goal late in game 7. Drew Stafford, who averaged a goal every other game in the regular season, had only one goal and two assists in the series. He must be better. Stafford is a RFA but at 25 with so much upside after his breakout season, he'll receive a nice raise from his current $1.9 million unless somebody out there throws something crazy at him.
There will be several changes, it says here, during this off season, with some of those changes coming from within. Zach Kassian and Marcus Foligno, along with Luke Adam and Paul Byron will challenge for spots too, with the probable departures of people like Mike Grier )35 and a UFA) and Tim Connolly.
Center Paul Gaustad remains an enigma to me. I like his toughness and grit, but he had two assists and was a minus 6 in the series, and also took some very untimely and needless penalties at key times.
Patrick Kaleta can't stay healthy with his all-out style of play, but he actually contributed a goal and a pair of assists in six games and clearly frustrated the Flyers whenever he was out there.
Jason Pominville's loss was a big one. The Sabres lost both games he missed, and his absence was certainly a factor on the penalty kill, not to mention Pominville continues to show he can score the big goal in the big game, as he did with his game winner in game four.
The cut he suffered in game 5 is a serious one I'm told, and could mean he won't even be ready for training camp. I'm also told although it came close to being a career ending injury, he's expected to recover. The Sabres have yet to comment on his injury publicly.
To me, it wasn't a mistake to bring Connolly back this season, even if overpaid, because his upside remained higher than any player they could have replaced him with. His strong play down the stretch and on the pk in the playoffs was a plus, and he was also missed at the end. Still, with what appears to be another concussion, one has to wonder if his playing days may be over.
It will be a busy off season for gm Darcy Regier, just figuring out how to keep the nucleus of this team intact while leaving enough cap space to go after a big free agent if the opportunity presents itself.
Young defensemen Mike Weber (23, $550,000), Chris Butler (24, $850,000) and Andrej Sekera (24, $1m) are RFA but will almost certainly be re-signed.
With the new owner Terry Pegula's deep pockets and commitment to winning, there is no reason to think gm Regier won't be allowed to go after some deals this off season he would never have been allowed to consider in the past. But it's tricky, because he still has to find a way to keep the players the Sabres identify as part of their future.
I think it's a bright future. The improved facilities and the word of Pegula's attention to detail in terms of making Buffalo a great place to play hockey for players AND their families is already making the rounds. Although this team finished with 96 points to the 100 of a year ago and a division title, the Sabres of 2010-2011 were a better team at the end.
Just ask the Flyers.