Lindy Ruff dodged many a bullets during his lengthy tenure behind the Buffalo Sabres bench, but even he couldn't survive the club's disappointing start to the lockout-shortened campaign in 2013.
On Feb. 20, the Sabres parted ways with Ruff, who at the time was the longest- tenured head coach in the NHL, having served in that capacity with Buffalo since 1997.
While Ruff, now head coach of the Dallas Stars, was sacrificed by Buffalo, general manager Darcy Regier earned a reprieve and is tasked with getting the Sabres, who have missed the playoffs in two straight and four of the last six seasons, back on track. Regier also took on his GM role in 1997 and it's unclear how much time he'll get to rebuild this franchise.
Ron Rolston took over for the fired Ruff on an interim basis and led the Sabres to a 15-11-5 record over the last two months of the season. In 2013-14, Rolston's job mainly is to try and mold Buffalo's young core into some sort of cohesive unit. It'd be a huge stretch to think of this team as a potential playoff club for the upcoming season.
One thing to keep an eye on during the campaign is whether or not the Sabres decide to trade winger Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller, who are both in the final year of their contracts and may not want to wait around for this rebuilding project to bear fruit.
FORWARDS - The trade rumors have begun swirling around Vanek and there have been reports that Buffalo even would retain part of the Austrian sniper's salary in order to get a deal done. Vanek, a 29-year-old left winger with 250 career goals to his credit, is scheduled to be paid $6.4 million in salary this season and the final year of his contract carries a cap hit of $7.14 million.
Vanek led the Sabres with 20 goals and 41 points last season and that was despite missing 10 games due to injury.
With Vanek rumored to be on the way out, the Sabres will try to build around young forwards like Cody Hodgson, Mikhail Grigorenko, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno.
Hodgson, who was acquired by Buffalo in a 2012 trade with Vancouver, recently signed a six-year contract extension with the Sabres. The 23-year-old centerman turned in solid numbers last season with 15 goals and 34 points over 48 games, but his defensive game has a long way to go.
Meanwhile, Grigorenko, who Buffalo selected with the 12th overall pick of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, had a rough first season in the NHL. The Russian centerman had one goal and four assists in 25 games in 2013, but he is only 19 years old heading into this season and has a chance to take a big step forward.
Ennis began the 2013 season as a centerman before being moved to left wing and the Sabres expect to keep him there this season. The 2008 first-round pick finished third on Buffalo in points in 2013, scoring 10 goals and tying Vanek for the team lead with 21 assists.
Foligno, a fourth-round pick by Buffalo in 2009, had five goals and 13 assists in 47 games last season.
One veteran the Sabres will expect much more out of in 2013-14 is underachieving forward Ville Leino, who has been a huge disappointment in his first two seasons with Buffalo. After turning in a career year with Philadelphia in 2010-11, when he posted 19 goals and 53 points, the Finnish winger signed a six-year, $27 million with Buffalo in the summer of 2011. To say it hasn't gone as planned would be a rather large understatement.
Leino had just eight goals and 17 assists in 71 games with the Sabres in 2011-12 and had six points while playing in only eight games during an injury- plagued 2013 campaign. In a somewhat surprising move, Regier did not opt to use a compliance buyout on Leino this offseason, but that still could be his fate if he suffers through another down year in 2013-14.
Another forward not pulling his weight is Drew Stafford, who was signed to a four-year, $16 million deal in the summer of 2011. Stafford, a first-round selection by Buffalo in 2004, had a solid 2011-12 campaign, posting 20 goals and 30 assists over 80 games, but dipped to just six goals and 12 assists in 46 contests last season.
Back for another year in Buffalo is physical forward Steve Ott, a guy Rolston will likely lean heavily on for veteran leadership this year. Ott played in all 48 games for the Sabres last season and recorded 24 points (9G, 15A) and 93 penalty minutes.
Barring a major step forward from all of their young players, the Sabres offense doesn't expect to be much better in 2013-14 than it was last season when Buffalo ranked 22nd in the league in offense. Of course, it could get worse if the Sabres decide to trade Vanek during the season.
DEFENSE - One of the biggest mysteries for the Sabres over the last few seasons has been the regression of defenseman Tyler Myers, who has struggled since bursting onto the NHL scene by winning the Calder Trophy as a rookie in 2009-10.
Myers, the 12th overall pick in the 2008 draft, is signed through the 2018-19 season, but he hardly justified his annual cap hit of $5.5 million in 2013. The 6-foot-8, 227-pound blueliner had just thee goals and five assists in 39 games and had a minus-eight rating before his season ended with a broken leg suffered in early April.
Although the Sabres brought back veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder, who was partnered with Myers during his tremendous rookie season, as a free agent this summer, Christian Ehrhoff is expected to be paired with Myers in 2013-14. Ehrhoff had five goals and 17 assists in 47 games last season and led all Sabres' skaters in ice time.
Tallinder could help bring depth and stability to a defensive unit that allowed 2.90 goals per game (22nd in NHL) last season. Buffalo also acquired Jamie McBain in the offseason and the former Carolina blueliner could help shore up the back end.
Mike Weber and Mark Pysyk also will log minutes on the blue line in 2013-14, while Rasmus Ristolainen, the eighth overall pick in this summer's draft, could also contend for a spot on the roster.
GOALTENDING - Miller, the club's longtime No. 1 goaltender, struggled at time in 2013, which is hardly surprising considering the inexperienced roster playing in front of him.
The former Vezina Trophy winner went 17-17-5 in 2013 and his goals against average of 2.81 was his highest number of any season in which he played in at least 10 games. Miller also failed to record a single shutout for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign, when the American played in only three games.
Miller says he hasn't ruled out re-signing with Buffalo when his contract is up at the end of the season, even if the Sabres decide to trade him before he hits free agency. Still, the chances of this being Miller's final season in Buffalo seem to be high.
If Miller is dealt, the Sabres will turn to Jhonas Enroth between the pipes. The 25-year-old Swede saw action in 12 games during the 2013 campaign and went 4-4-1 with a 2.60 GAA and one shutout. All told, Enroth is 21-18-7 with a 2.72 GAA in 53 career games.
The Sabres also acquired goaltending prospect Matt Hackett last season when they dealt forward Jason Pominville to Minnesota. He could challenge Enroth for playing time if Buffalo opts to deal Miller.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Sabres are setting the bar pretty low for themselves this season, and making the playoffs in 2013-14 would take a minor miracle from Rolston and his staff. A rebuilding phase is a tough sell in a passionate hockey market like Buffalo, but getting back on track through the draft seems to be the best course of action after finishing out of the playoffs for two straight years. Still, even with low expectations, if the youngsters fail to show improvement this season, Regier could join Ruff on the chopping block.