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2011-12 Buffalo Sabres Preview

Since the departure of Chris Drury and Danny Briere in the summer of 2007, the Buffalo Sabres have operated like a small market team. For the most part, that meant the club avoided the big expenditures that come with adding talent through free agency.

That all changed in February when Terry Pegula took the reins as the team's new owner. After watching his newly-acquired club get bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Philadelphia, Pegula made sure his team made a splash on the open market.

Buffalo gave defenseman Christian Ehrhoff a 10-year, $40 million deal and then lured forward Ville Leino away from Philadelphia with a six-year, $27 million contract. The Sabres also traded for former Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr, who has two years and $8 million left on his contract.

Pegula has promised he will bring a championship to Buffalo and he's certainly given longtime head coach Lindy Ruff better pieces to work with this year.

The club still has one of the top goaltenders in the league in Ryan Miller and the team's depth on both offense and defense is impressive. It may not be enough to get the Sabres that elusive Stanley Cup this year, but with the new ownership's aggressive strategy in acquiring talent it doesn't seem that far off either.

FORWARDS - One of the reasons Buffalo lost to the Flyers in seven games last spring was because the Sabres couldn't match up with Philly's centermen.

Even though Leino played wing in Philadelphia, he is expected to help Buffalo's troubles down the middle. After all, his natural spot is at center and that's where Buffalo expects to play him.

It's unclear if Leino, who had 53 points (19 goals, 34 assists) in 81 games with the Flyers last year, or Derek Roy will be the club's top centerman. They are similar players in the sense that both men are better playmakers than goal-scorers.

Roy played in just 35 games last year because of a quad injury, but he managed 35 points (10g, 25a) in those outings. Whether he plays pivot on the first or second lines, a healthy Roy, who averaged 70-plus points a season in the four seasons prior to 2010-11, is a big key to Buffalo's success.

Buffalo's most dynamic offensive weapon is left winger Thomas Vanek. The 27- year-old Austrian has scored at least 25 goals in all six of his NHL seasons and has eclipsed the 30-goal mark four times. Last year, he notched 32 goals and finished with 73 points -- the second-highest point total of his career.

Jason Pominville usually plays opposite Vanek on the right wing. He scored 20- plus goals (22) for the fifth straight year in 2010-11, but his point total (52) was below 60 for the first time since 2005-06.

Rounding out Buffalo's top-six are wingers Drew Stafford and Nathan Gerbe. Stafford was second to Vanek in goals (31) last year and tied Pominville for second on the club in points with 52. It was a breakthrough year for Stafford, who was the 13th overall pick of the 2004 draft, and Buffalo hopes the 25- year-old continues to progress this season.

Listed at 5-foot-5, Gerbe is the shortest player in the league and had played in just 20 NHL games prior to last season. The former Boston College star recorded 16 goals and 15 assists in 64 games last year, using his blazing speed to make up for his diminutive stature.

Providing competition for Gerbe on the left wing will be sophomore Tyler Ennis, who potted 20 goals and added 29 assists in 82 games as a rookie. Like Gerbe, Ennis is undersized at 5-foot-9, but can cause headaches for the opposition with his speed.

The Sabres will also hope to get more offense from Brad Boyes this year. Boyes was acquired from St. Louis just before the trade deadline, but he managed just six goals and nine assists in 28 games (including the playoffs) with Buffalo. Boyes tallied 76 goals over a two-year stretch with St. Louis, but since then has just 31 goals in 165 regular-season games.

Meanwhile, Jochen Hecht is better suited as a third-line centerman after being asked to man the top line for much of last year. Hecht had 12 goals and 17 assists in 67 games last year.

Elsewhere, the Sabres are expected to give the remaining minutes to returning physical players like Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad and Cody McCormick.

A pair of picks from the 2009 draft -- Marcus Foligno and Zack Kassian -- also have a chance to fight for playing time

DEFENSE - Buffalo wasn't short on talent at the defensive end last year, but the Sabres were inexperienced at the blue line. That's where Regehr and Ehrhoff fit into Pegula and GM Darcy Regier's plan.

Tyler Myers won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie in 2009-10, but the immense blueliner struggled at times in his sophomore campaign. Still, at just 21 years of age, the 6-foot-8 Myers has already played in 162 NHL games and has registered 85 points (21g, 64a) over that span.

Expect Myers to get paired up with Regehr, a 31-year-old who made a name for himself in Calgary as a steady, and physical, stay-at-home defensemen. He has 826 career games under his belt and his presence should help Myers grow into the dominant rearguard everyone expects him to be.

While Regehr's primary role is to be a steadying veteran presence, Ehrhoff has been brought in to add offensive punch to the back end. He tallied 14 goals in each of the last two seasons for Vancouver and amassed a career-high 50 points (14g, 36a) in 79 games for the Canucks last season.

Buffalo's power-play was ranked ninth in the NHL last year and the addition of Ehrhoff is expected to make the Sabres even better on the man advantage.

Jordan Leopold is back for another year in Buffalo after inking a three-year deal with the Sabres last summer. The 31-year-old collected 13 goals and 35 points in 71 games in his first year with Buffalo.

Marc-Andre Gragnani has played just 15 regular-season games at the NHL level, but his excellent playoff series against Philadelphia last spring has ratcheted up the expectations for this season. Gragnani has one goal and two assists in 15 regular-season contests before exploding for seven points (1g, 6a) in the first-round exit against Philadelphia.

Gragnani is expected to skate alongside Andrej Sekera, who had a career year with 29 points (3g, 26a) in 76 games for Buffalo last season.

Mark Weber and Shaone Morrisonn provide further depth on the blue line.

GOALTENDING - After winning the Vezina Trophy in 2009-10 and almost willing Team USA to a Gold Medal at the Vancouver Olympics, Miller was destined for a letdown last season.

It's not that Miller played poorly in 2010-11, it's just that he appeared to be superhuman the year before. He battled injuries for most of the season and still managed to go 24-22-8 with a 2.59 goals-against average.

Miller rebounded with two shutouts against the Flyers in the playoffs. That was despite the fact that Philadelphia averaged nearly 35 shots a night in that seven-game set. With the addition of Regehr and Ehrhoff to an already improving defensive corps, the Sabres hope Miller is no longer forced to work so hard to get his club wins.

The good news for the Sabres is that Jhonas Enroth emerged as a legitimate backup to Miller and could spell the No. 1 goalie more often this season. Enroth, 23, went 9-2-2 with a 2.73 GAA in 14 appearances last season.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Pegula has helped get the Sabres back to thinking of themselves as Cup contenders, but a more realistic goal for 2011-12 is a Northeast Division title. Buffalo should challenge the Boston Bruins -- last year's Stanley Cup champions -- for the division crown and a deep playoff run is not out of the question. The important thing for the Sabres is that they've once again begun to think they can play for a championship. With that confidence and an energetic new owner in tow, the future is looking brighter already.