Originally Published: September 25, 2013

Buffalo Sabres: The basement is the limit

By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

I direct you to a conversation in early September with an NHL GM from the Western Conference, one of those dialogues in which you go around the league and just catch up on all the teams.

When the subject of the Buffalo Sabres came up, the GM surprised the heck out of me.

"Don't sleep on the Sabres," the GM said. "Just have that feeling that they may surprise people. So much went wrong there last year. I think they're better than people give them credit for."

Not sure I share the same enthusiasm.

But you can bet within their dressing room, the Sabres will feed off that motivation to prove everyone wrong, considering most people are picking them to be last or close to the basement in the Atlantic Division.

"Absolutely, we don't want to be placed there, Sabres veteran Steve Ott told ESPN.com. "As players, you can use that as motivation if you want. But I think individually a lot of guys need to up their game. For us, we're a super-young team. We're going to have a transition period during the season. But this process that began under Ron [Rolston] last year, I really believe in. I think he's a great teacher. His methodical thinking, his structure, the veteran guys have to lead the way and show the young guys how to play. If not, we won't be successful."

Despite all the doom and gloom last season coming out of Buffalo, it should be noted that the Sabres were in contention for a while before finishing seven points out.

"It's awful missing out," said Ott. "We're here just to have a chance. You look at L.A. two years ago being the eight-seed, getting in and winning the Stanley Cup. The parity is so close now. We lost a number of one-goal games last season. That's the difference; had we won some of those, we would have been a playoff team. It stings when you miss the playoffs; it's awful."

Well, the changes really began last season when longtime coach Lindy Ruff was fired and replaced by Rolston, who had his interim tag removed in the offseason. Captain Jason Pominville was also dealt to Minnesota in what was seen by many as the beginning of the rebuild by GM Darcy Regier. Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek checked their phones all summer long to see if they would be moved too, as many people suspected they would. So now the focus shifts to the trade deadline next March: All eyes will be on Vanek and Miller. They're both entering the final year of their respective contracts. All of which will be tough to ignore in the Sabres' room.

"It's always hard when you're talking about trades," said Ott. "Because being a team, it turns into a brotherhood almost. But both those two guys are pros. They're excited to be Sabres; they'll let the business end take care of itself. They're not young guys getting their names tossed around, they're veterans and they know how to handle it."

Other changes in the offseason: Defenseman Andrej Sekera was traded to Carolina for blueliner Jamie McBain and a second-round pick; winger Riley Boychuk was dealt to New Jersey for defenseman Henrik Tallinder; forward Nathan Gerbe was let go as a free agent, as was defenseman Adam Pardy; and veteran forward Jochen Hecht retired.

The sense is that this is just the beginning, though, for change in Buffalo.

This might surprise some Sabres fans, but that same Western Conference GM likes the Sabres for one specific reason: "I like the young talent down the middle," he said.

Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Luke Adam, Mikhail Grigorenko and Kevin Porter are a youthful lot but indeed possess intriguing talent, notably Hodgson and Ennis. But the Sabres need consistent offensive production from that duo to have a shot at the playoffs. Another strength remains in goal, where despite his struggles over the past two seasons, Miller, in my mind, remains one of the elite netminders in the league. Backup Jhonas Enroth has displayed the makeup of a future starter himself, something that could happen sooner than he thinks if Miller is dealt this season.

The blue-line corps is a question mark as a whole. Tyler Myers was a major disappointment last season, and he has to find his former form for the Sabres to have a chance. The McBain and Tallinder additions are depth moves. Myers has to lead the way and youngsters such as Mike Weber and Mark Pysyk have to continue to make strides for the Sabres to show a better outlook on defense.

The Sabres were already hard-pressed to make the playoffs before Detroit was added to their mix in the new Atlantic Division. With Boston, Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal already expected to be higher in the division, and now the Red Wings in their way as well, realignment didn't do much for Buffalo from a competitive point of view. In terms of selling tickets, though, adding yet another Original Six team like Detroit on their division schedule is sublime.

LeBrun: The rebuild continues: Miller and Vanek will be dealt and the Sabres will finish second from the bottom -- seventh -- in the Atlantic Division.

Burnside: Seventh in the Atlantic Division.

Custance: Eighth in the Atlantic Division.

Melrose: Eighth in the Atlantic Division.

Strang: Eighth in the Atlantic Division.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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