The Buffalo Sabres are over the salary cap.
If you cheer for Buffalo or follow the team closely, you are probably a little jostled by those words. Under the Tom Golisano era of ownership, the Sabres spent more than the basement dwellers, but never came close to the spending ceiling. The team succeeded at times, making the Eastern Conference Finals twice during Golisano's ownership, but could not spend enough to keep their quality players or add the needed piece at the trade deadline.
You see, Golisano had a simple directive: make sure we break even. He said so at his final press conference as the Sabres' owner. That order led to Buffalo losing two key defensemen last summerHenrik Tallinder and Tony Lydman and if you really want to open old wounds, Danny Briere and Chris Drury in 2007.
That's all changed now.
Under new owner Terry Pegula, Buffalo attacked the free agent market, signing Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff. They also traded for defenseman Robyn Regehr. In addition, the Sabres refused to allow young talent to leave. They re-signed Marc Gragnani, Jhonas Enroth, Nathan Gerbe, and Mike Weber, who are all expected to play roles on the 2011-12 Sabres.
Buffalo may not be finished, either. In an interview after the Sabres announced their purchase of the AHL's Rochester Americans, general manager Darcy Regier said the team could look for a trade to alleviate their more than $3 million over the salary cap.
So things are different now. But all the changes bring great expectations. When Pegula took over the Sabres, he said, “Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.” Bold words, words he actually had posted in the team's locker room. Before, the goal each season was to reach the playoffs and hope superstar goaltender Ryan Miller got hot at the right time. Now, the goal is the Stanley Cup.
And that means added pressure for several long-time Sabres.
The first is Regier. In the past, he has come under scrutiny for making useless trade deadline deals and failing to coax free agents to Buffalo. Regier can pin the blame on Golisano, for now. But he'll be crossing his fingers that overpaying for Leino and Ehrhoff doesn't come back to bite the Sabres, especially since the team is controversially asking Leino to switch positions from wing to center.
There is little doubt that Lindy Ruff is one of the best coaches in the NHL. He's remained at his post longer than any other coach, reached the Stanley Cup once and the Conference Finals twice. Ruff was extended by Pegula, so unless the wheels really come off, Ruff is there to stay. The pressure comes from an ever-growing group of Sabres fans who believe they can't win the Cup under Ruff. The excuse has always been that he didn't have the horses and has always relied on having the best goalie in the World. The horses have arrived, so now he must win.
Goaltender Ryan Miller may be under the biggest microscope. Despite battling through injuries during the first half of last season, notching a .930 save percentage during his last 20 starts, and winning a Player of the Week award, Miller's 2010-11 performance was below expectations. He has been dubbed the "Best Goalie on Earth”, and Sabres fans expect him to play that way every night. He finished the season with a .916 save percentage and had two of the best playoff performances against the Philadelphia Flyers. But again, not enough.
Miller's struggles during the first half could be traced to the losses of Tallinder and Lydman. The young defense, led by a fading Steve Montador, did not protect their goalie as the 2009-10 group had. Now with the additions of Ehrhoff and Regehr, the expectation is Vezina Trophy or bust.
The biggest wild card for the Sabres this season will be Derek Roy. He will be Buffalo's number-one center. While his stats have been good, the line on Roy has been that he's worried more about what's going on after the game than during it. The rhetoric changed somewhat last season when Roy showed leadership qualities and toughness before getting hurt 35 games into the season. He also battled back from injury to play Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs. He may have won over some Sabres fans with his comeback last year, but in 2011-12, he is expected to be the top-line center on a Stanley Cup-winning team.
When Terry Pegula said it was his goal to win the Cup, everyone smiled. When he made the moves this offseason to potentially push his team over the top, everyone cheered. But if the Sabres do not reach their goal, the disappointment will be greater than ever and the cheers may turn into screams for Regier, Ruff, Miller, and Roy to be out.
That said, there couldn't be anything better for the Sabres than a little pressure.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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