It’s not because their play on the ice is a lower quality, but instead because players seem to use the team as a stepping stone to bigger contracts elsewhere.
In the past couple of years, they’ve lost Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Martin Biron and Brian Campbell, who are now making $24 million between the four of them. They also had to match an offer so they didn’t lose Thomas Vanek, and he will be getting more than $7 million a season for the next few years.
Forwards: Thomas Vanek should have a rebound year. Last year, many think he had a “disappointing” season, even though he finished with 36 goals. He got off to a slow start, but picked it up near the end of the season. If he can stay consistent throughout the year, Buffalo will have a shot to make the playoffs.
Derek Roy had a breakthrough season last year, with 32 goals and 81 points. He plays the powerplay and the penalty kill, so he’ll be on the ice a ton.
You could almost substitute Jason Pominville’s name for Roy’s in the paragraph above. Pominville also had a career season last year, and has scored some big goals in his career already.
They traded for Craig Rivet. Despite 11 years in the league, Rivet has never been the top defenceman on a team. He’ll be decent for them, but they need to make sure they don’t expect too much.
Teppo Numminen is back for a full season, which will help this team immensely. He has put up double digits in powerplay assists in nine of the last 12 seasons. He’ll also be looked upon to play strong defence.
Goaltending: The Sabres took a gamble on Ryan Miller by trading away Martin Biron a couple of seasons ago. Miller is a fine young goalie, but still needs to produce better numbers for this team to have any chance of making the postseason. Last year, he had a 2.64 and a .906 save percentage. Decent numbers, but not as good as half the goalies in the conference.
Pool picks: Tim Connolly has been almost a point-per-game player for the past few years, but has had trouble with injuries. If he can stay healthy for a full season, he should be good for at least 70 points. Stay away from: Maxim Afinogenov. He has battled injuries and his coach, and his numbers have gone down in the past two seasons.
Miscellaneous: Even with all their losses, Buffalo could still have to rejig this team quite a bit after this season. Teppo Numminen, Jaroslav Spacek, Andrew Peters, Ales Kotalik, Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov are all unrestricted free agents after this season. Most of them will be getting pay raises, and although they have $6 million in cap space now, look for this team to undergo quite a few changes, especially if they miss the playoffs again.
Expected finish: Third in the Northeast division, ninth in the Eastern conference
Overall: With the Sabres, it’s not so much the team has gotten that much worse, because some of their players have stepped forward when others have left.
But the other teams around them continue to get better. That’s why Buffalo will struggle to win games, and will be on the outside looking in when the playoffs roll around.