GAME DAY: at Buffalo
Blue Jackets and Sabres play first of two meetings this season
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|When Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres in February, he made one thing very clear: general manager Darcy Regier had the “green light” to ice a championship-caliber team.
It was a sigh of relief for the Sabres and their loyal fans, who had endured years of uncertainty surrounding the future of the franchise despite Buffalo’s reputation of being a competitive team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Pegula, a natural gas industry executive from Pennsylvania, was also the primary economic resource behind Penn State University’s brand-new Division I men’s and women’s ice hockey programs (his alma mater).
Regier finally had the necessary resources to upgrade his team, and this summer, he did exactly that.
The Sabres finished T-17th in goals against a year ago, yielding an average of 2.78 goals per game – and it could have been worse if not for another solid season from Ryan Miller. The 31-year-old Michigan State product started 66 games for head coach Lindy Ruff last season, posting a 2.59 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and five shutouts. Without a doubt, Miller is the backbone of the Sabres and Regier’s goal was to get him some help.
Buffalo acquired sturdy defenseman Robyn Regehr from the Calgary Flames, instantly giving the Sabres blue line a veteran presence that can play big minutes and kill penalties. And as if one big-time pickup on the back end wasn’t enough, Regier went after the No. 1 target on the free-agent market: Christian Ehrhoff. Regier traded for the rights to negotiate with Ehrhoff prior to July 1, and it didn’t take long for Ehrhoff to agree a 10-year contract ensuring he’ll be the team’s top blue-liner. Those two additions added to a blue line with names like Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold and Marc Andre-Gragnani give the Sabres one of the best “on-paper” defenses in the Eastern Conference.
Up front, the Sabres are equally scary. Regier has assembled a young and talented group of forwards that are big, strong and gritty as well as compact, skilled and fast. It’s that combination which makes game-planning for Buffalo difficult because all of Ruff’s lines have the potential to score goals. Captain Jason Pominville is a regular 20-goal scorer in the league and Thomas Vanek is one of the deadliest snipers in the game. The Sabres acquired Brad Boyes at the trading deadline last year to get secondary scoring, and he’s been able to settle nicely into that role in Buffalo.
Regier signed free-agent forward Ville Leino to a six-year contract, giving the skilled Finn an opportunity to play center for the Sabres. He joins a forward corps with sturdy Drew Stafford, center Derek Roy and young Luke Adam – the latter being one of the standout players for Buffalo in the early going. They will, however, be without one of their top playmaking threats in Tyler Ennis, who is out of the Sabres lineup with an ankle injury.
Through a lot of change in Buffalo, there has been one constant and that is Ruff. Of course, there was speculation after Pegula assumed control of the franchise that the futures of both Regier and Ruff were in question, but Pegula believed in the management staff and the head coach. Ruff is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, is now in his 13th season behind the Buffalo bench is one of the most accomplished active coaches in the game. Ruff is sixth among active coaches in total wins (438) and owns a .591 career winning percentage in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Since Ruff was hired by the Sabres on July 21, 1997, there have been 163 head coaching changes in the NHL. He is the third-longest tenured coach in the four major professional sports, behind Tony LaRussa (St. Louis Cardinals) and Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs).