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Amerks, Gragnani Deal, and Scapegoats

The Buffalo Sabres announced the signings of Michael Ryan and Paul Szczechura to one year contracts today. Michael Ryan had spent five seasons in the Sabres organization from 2003-2007. Szcechura played all of last year for Norfolk (AHL) and parts of the prior two seasons as a call-up for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Both players are expected to spend the season in Rochester, and I applaud Darcy Regier for bringing in some guys with NHL experience to help bring along all the promising prospects on the Amerks. As much as Buffalo is expecting players like McNabb, Schiestel, Adam, Kassian, Foligno, Persson, Brennan, and Pysyk to make contributions at the NHL level, the fact remains that these players are all young and unproven with Adam being the only one to have made an appearance in Blue and Gold. Having guys who have gotten in 166 NHL contests (83 each for Ryan and Szechura) should add a presence in the Amerks locker room and hopefully a it will rub off on the young kids.

I did find it interesting however that Darcy and Co. found it necessary to add depth to their AHL club ahead of signing their lone free agent in Marc Andre Gragnani. I am not inside the Sabres organization, and I don't claim to have an inside source, but I have to think Grags is asking for Weber money (Mike not Shea!) and Buffalo can't justify that deal. Mike Weber was just rewarded with a 2yr 1.9$mil contract. Weber has now spent parts of three seasons with the big club and in 81 games has amassed 20pts and an impressive +/- of +13. Gragnani on the other hand has played all of 15 games in the NHL and although he was a standout in Buffalo's playoff loss to Philadelphia scoring 7pts in 7 games, he has not shown that ability over the long haul. Even though Grags is a year older than Weber, his small sample size of NHL games is not enough for him to merit a similar deal. Look for both sides to settle somewhere around 2yrs 1.5$mil.

I'm all about positive thinking, and I love the aggressive mentality Buffalo has had this off-season. With that said, anything short of a Conference Finals appearance, at least in my book, is going to be a disappointment. If the Sabres don't make the playoffs this year, or are bounced out easily in the first round, many of us will be dissecting the failures of this team and pointing fingers. Some targets are already being lined up as guys like Roy, Hecht, and Vanek are (fairly or unfairly) perennial scapegoats. However none of them took the flak that Tim Connolly took during his tenure here and somebody else is now likely to become public enemy number 1 in Sabreland. Here are my top 5 guys most likely to be made the scapegoat for our season when it inevitably ends, assuming we fall short of the Conference Finals.

1.)Derek Roy - Well this one was obvious wasn't it? He was probably the 1B to Connolly's 1A and with the tin man no longer on the team it seems likely that Roy will continue to get the brunt of the blame from the fans. Is it fair? Probably not, Roy puts up point totals consistent with a mid level top line centers, and above most second line centers. In addition his 4$mil cap hit is right in line with his performance. Many fans are upset the Sabres couldn't upgrade their #1 center and feel like they are "stuck" with Roy. The expectation that Roy perform like Crosby is not realistic and sometimes the fans put too much on his shoulders. Does he hold onto the puck too much? Yes. Is he madly inconsistent? Yes. Do we have a better option? No, and that's not Roy's fault...he's not the GM. He just has to go out and do his job, which he does rather well.

2.)Christian Ehrhoff- He hasn't played a single game in the blue and gold but if things go south this year he is going to hear it from the fan base. His 4$mil cap hit is friendly, but in his first season as a Sabre the organization is going to pay him 10$mil and that's a boatload of dough to earn should the team struggle. If he has an off year, or is injured for a long stretch this could get ugly. Over the last 4 seasons Christian has been a model of consistency, and with a deep defensive corp and a solid goal-tending tandem behind him (eerily similar to his situation in Vancouver) I don't see the talented German struggling in Western New York.

3.)Ville Leino- For reasons similar to Ehrhoff, Leino could have a target on his back this year as well. Many feel the Sabres are overpaying for Ville's services, and though I am not one of them, I'll be the first to admit I expect him to put up at least 60 points. If he falls well short of that he's going to get booed as if he were still a Flyer. More than any other player on this list I think it is imperative for Leino to get off to a strong start. He will get the least benefit of the doubt from the Sabres faithful and he would do well for himself to get the fans and media off his back with a solid first half.

4.)Thomas Vanek- Oftentimes nicknamed "Vanish" from the fanbase for his prolonged slumps and inconsistent play, the talented Austrian really stepped up to the table during the second half of the season last year and has earned himself enough goodwill to be bumped down to #4 on this list. Even in the first round against Philly, Vanek admittedly had a poor series and still yet managed to score 5 goals, albeit 4 on the power-play. We saw some maturity creep into his game last year, and with the amount of offensive talent he has to surround himself with I see Thomas primed for another 35-40 goal season. However, with that kind of depth should Vanek not reach the 30+ goal plateau he will be criticized immensely.

5.)Drew Stafford- Last season was Drew's coming out party, no not that kind of coming out...the kind where you score 31goals in 62games, on pace for 41 in a full 82 game season. Most of us in Sabreland feel Staff has finally "gotten it" and expect similar production from him moving forward. I'm not faulting him for developing slowly, usually power forwards tend to take a year or two longer than speed/skill guys at this level. However now that he seems to have gotten over the hump regression will not be tolerated. Stafford just landed a big payday (4yrs/16$mil) and the fans and the organization alike are counting on him to continue his upward trend...anything less and that "druuuu" chant will start to sound more like "boo".

Brandon Hess

Follow me on Twitter @SabreHess

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