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All Eyes on Defense as Sabres Kick Off

Sabres D Tyler Myers

Season begins Friday, first home game on Saturday

Once again, fans across Sabres Nation are wringing their hands in consternation as another offseason has come and gone, and the hockey department has made no splashy moves to bolster the team. “Why can’t they go out and get an impact player like Kovalchuk?” “Why won’t the team spend to the cap?” “How could they have let Tim Kennedy go?” Just a few of the cries out there.

Yet the 2010-11 edition of the Buffalo Sabres will be bigger, beefier, and stronger, looking for a more physical presence that was their undoing as they fell to the tougher and more physical Boston Bruins in last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

Gone from the blue line are Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder, and to reload the team with a veteran presence, signed were Jordan Leopold, a 6’1”, 200-pounder who comes from the Florida Panthers, and Shaone Morrisonn, an even bigger blue-line presence who has been a mainstay for the Washington Capitals these past six seasons.

Both will be called upon to eat up minutes, but last year that bragging right went to Tyler Myers, who averaged 23:44 minutes of ice time per game, one of the top players in that category in the entire NHL. Myers also scored 48 points in his rookie season, providing most of the scoring from the defensive corps. Coach Lindy Ruff would love to see more participation in that regard from Leopold, as well as from his younger players such as Chris Butler and Andrej Sekera.

“We’ve tried to replace puck movers like Tallinder with someone like Jordan, who is able to supply us with some more offense,” said defenseman Chris Butler. “Then you get a size guy who can block shots down low like Mr. Morrisonn there. What’s important for us as defensemen is to work on our transition game, and make sure when we do have the puck not to hang on to it too long and get it up to the forwards.”

Butler is trying to set some personal goals after a year of somewhat inconsistent performance. “More consistency, just constantly maintaining a positive attitude and positive outlook,” he said. “Everyone makes mistakes and it’s how you respond to those mistakes. Make sure I make good passes and contribute to the offense as best I can.”

Fans who have watched the Sabres in preseason are certainly seeing the new-look defense. alongside the new-look offense. Tyler Myers in particular has moved the puck well up the ice, almost becoming the fourth attacker in the offensive zone, as the Sabres will be looking to put more pressure on the attack. “It really is part of our attack. We need [Myers] getting up and we encourage that fourth man almost all the time,” said head coach Lindy Ruff. “Some guys are more efficient with it, and Tyler has some very good hands. But some of the other defensemen have gone up and made plays for us as well.”

One player who had an exceptional training camp is forward Drew Stafford, who spent a great deal of the summer improving his conditioning. Stafford is expecting the Sabres to be a more physical team this season. “I think it’s more that we’re finishing shifts and staying in the battle and coming out of the defensive zone with pucks. It’s one thing to deliver that big hit and, you know, get the boys going, and another thing when you get consistent pressure and you’re getting good zone time and winning battles physically and getting pucks to the net. We seem to be doing that pretty well. But preseason is over now and we have to get ready for the opener.”

Butler emphatically stated that the team has a positive attitude and are eager for the season to begin. “Yeah, I think always,” he said. “When a season ends everyone needs to take some time off and put things behind you. You start your training then and refocus, and I think everyone’s doing a good job. We kind of forget about last year, whether it was a good year or a bad year. You just kind of reset, and I think everyone has done a good job focusing on the season ahead.”

After dropping the puck in Ottawa on Friday night to begin the regular season, the team comes home for four straight games beginning Saturday night. The New York Rangers will be in town as the Sabres raise their 2010 Northeast Division championship banner to the rafters. Then the Stanley Cup champs Chicago Blackhawks come in Monday night, followed by the New Jersey Devils and the Montreal Canadiens.

“It’s been a good camp for a lot of players. We’re still carrying 14 forwards and a couple extra defensemen,” said Ruff. “We’ll just have to evaluate and make a decision on who is going to play. A lot of [the decision] will go on the play in preseason.”

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