The Buffalo Sabres roster is set, and judging from the lines at practice, there are two players in the top 6 that will have a ton of focus on them: Drew Stafford and Ville Leino. Stafford gets the first crack at being the other winger with Hodgson and Vanek, while Leino goes with Ott and Ennis. There’s some possibility that changes when injured players come back (currently Armia, Zadorov, Foligno and Tropp are out) but Drew and Ville will both have a chance to make their case first.
Stafford has always been a frustrating case for most of us. He’s a couple of seasons removed from scoring 31 goals in 62 games, and pulling down 20 in the season after. However, last year went pretty bad for him, netting only 6 goals in the short season. There’s reason for hope, though. He’s got two legit threats with him, and last year saw his shooting percentage at less than half of his career level (5% versus 11.7%). Stafford has always seemed like a ~25 goal type player, with a 30 goal plateau playing with the talent he’ll have – and on the first power play unit to boot.
Ville Leino should have a shot at improving as well. He played only 8 games last season, scoring 2 goals and adding 4 assists. His line has Steve Ott to bang bodies and be a nuisance, and Tyler Ennis to deal the puck. Ennis is no Hodgson, but it’s still giving Ville a chance. He was also seen on the second power play unit. I thought Leino played well in his limited time last season, and there were flashes of that the year before. He’s more of a long shot, but I’ve got a feeling a full, healthy season might be just what Leino needs to reach the potential he showed in Philly.
If anything works against these two, it’s the fact that there are so many young forwards eyeing their spots. Girgensons and Grigorenko both sit on the third line as of now – but how much of one of Stafford’s slumps would it take for one of them to get a top-6 shot? Armia and Larsson lurk as well. Foligno’s return will give the team all the excuse they need to shake up lines if things don’t start well. Me, I’m rooting for both guys. I think Leino has been scapegoated pretty hard here, and Stafford has been a good soldier and could just need someone to believe in him. Here’s hoping they seize the opportunity. Go Sabres.