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Sabres centers to serve a pivotal role

One thing that Darcy Regier has managed well for the past few years has been his draft strategy. Glaring organizational weaknesses have been addressed in recent seasons via the draft and this approach has led to an impressive stockpile of talent in Buffalo’s prospect cupboards.

June’s draft was certainly no exception as the Sabres took what may have been considered to be a calculated gamble on Mikhail Girgorenko followed quickly by Zemgus Girgensons in the first round. The two selections immediately added two big, talented centers who each possess a unique skillset. In fact, each forward drafted by the Sabres in June had spent time at center entering the draft.

The addition of Grigorenko was perceived as the solution to the lack of a true number one center on the Buffalo roster. Only three days into training camp and Grigorenko has drawn plenty of attention for his play with many thinking that he will have staying power on the roster. It might be wise to ignore Jerry Sullivan’s rambling, contradictory column and instead focus on the other two posts done by Chris Ryndak and Kevin Pritchard on Girgorenko’s chances to make the final roster for the Sabres. Both Ryndak and Pritchard hit a home run with their analysis.

Looking at the makeup of the Sabres roster and assuming that Grigorenko will be a major part of it this season shows quite a different depth chart than what the team had as late as April of last season. Between the trade deadline and draft the Sabres transformed from a team with questionable center depth to one with the capability of having an effective set of nine scoring forwards.

Moving Tyler Ennis to center and the continued evolution of Cody Hodgson has primed the Sabres with three blue chip talents down the middle of the ice. So long as Grigorenko sticks around and the trio arte put in a position to succeed, the Sabres attack should be quite impressive.

For the record, I do understand where Sullivan is coming from with his skepticism about Grigorenko staying beyond his five-game audition. It wouldn’t necessarily be surprising to see Lindy Ruff err on the side of caution by sticking Jochen Hecht on the “third line” with Ott and Leino while John Scott, Patrick Kaleta, Matt Ellis, Nathan Gerbe and Cody McCormick all battle for time on the “fourth line”. Of course Gerbe could bump up a line too and there is no way to assume that Grigorenko will stay or go.

The decision surrounding Grigorenko could also revolve around which defensemen the Sabres choose to keep as additional bodies on the blueline will make it more difficult to reserve space on the front for additional forwards. Ultimately the Sabres are looking to ice the best roster and keeping the most effective talent which provides the best opportunity to win will be how Ruff picks his team.

When I look at the roster I don’t see why you wouldn’t keep Grigorenko full time. The line of Vanek-Hodgson-Pominville and Foligno-Ennis-Stafford should pair nicely with a trio of Ott-Grigorenko-Leino to round out the top nine. Besides, what is the over/under set at for Ruff to shuffle his lines anyway? Five periods, maybe seven? Certainly there will be plenty of changes with the forwards this season and some of those changes will likely include Grigorenko.

Outside of over-analyzing and worrying about keeping the 18 year-old’s psyche in the right state, shuffling Grigorenko around with some of Buffalo’s other forwards won’t hurt him. The only issue would be if he is demoted to the fourth line and sees eight minutes a night. That simply cannot happen. Placing him between Pominville, Vanek, Stafford or others won’t harm him. The key is keeping his minutes at an appropriate level.

I do have high hopes for what he can do between Ott and Leino. The line is quite reminiscent of the one that helped Leino to his big payday two summers ago. Skating with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell, Leino thrived on a line that had a solid mix of grit and skill. The same could be said of this trio. Steve Ott is a pest who can grind in the corners, find space in the slot and has a knack for picking up points. Grigorenko and Leino are both supremely talented with the puck and there is no reason that some quick chemistry between the two would result in a line that could potentially do some serious damage.

Buffalo’s other two centers already have a fairly impressive resume to their credit entering this shortened season. Hodgson – who I’m a huge fan of – was running at a point-per-game clip with the Amerks and could be poised to take a major step forward skating between Vanek and Pominville this season. Again, all lines are subject to change.

Hodgson’s potential is quite captivating. He is a dynamic talent who should certainly thrive playing between two finishers like Pominville and Vanek. Granted, his goal numbers may not be too high playing between the two best finishers on the roster. Regardless, I’m high on what Hodgson brings to the table and keeping him in a top-six role this season should do wonders for his development.

The magic of the Foligno-Ennis-Stafford line could continue this season and should it carry over from last spring, the Sabres will have the foundation for three potent scoring lines. This is probably the one line that carries the most faith into the season. They proved to find quick chemistry down the stretch last year and there should be no reason why that won’t continue this season.

Ultimately, however, I think this team might just live and die with their centers. If Grigorenko sticks around and is given the proper ice time, he makes the roster a hell of a lot deeper. Giving Hodgson a full season with the team should provide better results than what came after the deadline last year. The Ennis line has high expectations based on their finish and that trio will be prime for a patented Ruff reshuffle should they become stagnant.

The equation here appears to be fairly simple. Effective play at pivot should give the Sabres an effective and dangerous lineup. If the centers falter and this becomes a roster carried by a group of 2A and 2B centermen, the offensive well will be quite dry.

Now fans can only wait until Sunday to see if the maneuvering to snag these three players will indeed pay off.

Joe

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The Lord of Buffalo Wins

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