Lets take a trip back to January this past year; the team was in position to get a lottery pick and the center depth consisted of Derek Roy, Paul Gaustad, a guy who was slowly being transitioned to wing in Luke Adam, and a mix-match of 3 or 4 guys who weren’t natural centers (Boyes, Leino, Hecht, etc) trying to make it work in the middle. Taking a look into the minors, the Amerks had AHL rookie Phil Varone, and there were two potential third line centers in juniors in Dan Catenacci and Kevin Sundher. The center depth was abysmal. Sabres fans were raking Darcy Regier over the coals for allowing the center depth to get to such a point, and with Paul Gaustad’s contract concluding at the end of the season and likely to be dealt at the deadline, it didn’t look like it would be getting any better. Many fans pointed to a common thread through each recent Stanley Cup winner, they all had depth down the middle. Many agonized over finding a way to get Buffalo that center depth that so many good teams in the league have.
Fast-forward to the trade deadline, Tyler Ennis had been converted to center and Darcy Regier made a fairly bold move in trading Zack Kassian for former uber-prospect Cody Hodgson. Hodgson was expected to step in for the time being and fill the gap in the middle left by the trade of Paul Gaustad. Things were looking a bit more positive but still with an underperforming Derek Roy, a rookie in Cody Hodgson, and a guy who had only played ~15 games at center in his NHL career, their NHL center depth was still average at best and the organizational depth at center was still severely lacking with no top-six center candidates in the prospect pool.
Heading into the draft, center was still viewed as a position that needed some serious work. The NHL depth was adequate at best, and there was little help on the way in terms of top 6 center prospects. With Derek Roy only having one year left on his contract, the weight of the top 6 centers in the system would be left squarely on the shoulders of Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis. While on the topic of Tyler Ennis, we’re going to go on a brief tangent here, follow along if you so choose.
I am one of the biggest Tyler Ennis fans out there and I have been since his draft year, I had him as a top 10 prospect in his draft year when most viewed him as a slight reach at 26 (projected right around 30). However, expectations need to be tempered with this kid. Yes, he looked fantastic at center when he played there this season and there is no reason he shouldn’t start the season right back at that position. But do not be fooled by the effects of a small sample size. He was tried as a center in the AHL and it was not successful. Personally, I tend to believe Ennis will be totally fine at center but I still need to see more than a ~25 game sample size to be fully convinced that the center position is where his future will be.
Beyond the small sample size issue, there are some concerning statistics that certainly point to a potential regression from Tyler Ennis this season. For instance, Tyler Ennis managed just 1.7 shots on goal per game this past season; this rate is not at all consistent with his point production. 95 forwards registered 50+ points this season, only four of which did so while registering fewer than 1.7 shots per game. If the expectations are for 50+ points (49 in his rookie season, 58 point pace last season), then the shot rate will most definitely need to increase. In addition to the shot rate, the team’s 11.65% shooting percentage with Tyler Ennis on the ice indicates he experienced some good luck this season. Over the two seasons prior to this one, 36 players registered on-ice shooting percentages greater than 11%, only one of those 36 repeated it the next season. For those 36 players, the average regression from their 11+% season to the next was 3.3%. So it’s fair to expect Tyler Ennis’ on-ice shooting percentage to drop from 11.65% to the 8-8.5% range which can make a significant difference over the course of a full season.
Moving along, the team still targeted center as a position of need heading into the draft with one veteran center with one year left on his contract, an unproven player coming off his rookie season, and a player who has only played ~25 games at center at the NHL level. The team did very well to nab Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons in the first round. Mikhail Grigorenko will be given the opportunity to make the team out of training camp this season while Zemgus Girgensons will likely begin his post-junior career at the University of Vermont.
Now comes the question: can somebody please explain to me why so many people are calling for the Sabres to trade one of their centers? I’ve seen many fans go as far as suggesting the Sabres need to trade TWO centers. Past history (and NHL Equivalencies) show that even if Grigorenko makes the team, anything more than 40 points would be surprising. Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis are both unproven commodities at this point (at least at their positions), and Derek Roy only has one year left on his contract. Trading any one of those guys leaves the team quite vulnerable up the middle if things don’t work out as planned.
Personally, their current depth chart seems like the perfect situation to me. Derek Roy has one year left on his contract, that is the perfect bridge to allow Cody Hodgson to grow more as a player, fully assess what we have in Tyler Ennis at the center position, and either give Grigorenko one final season to grown in juniors, or allow him to work through his rookie struggles in the NHL. Assuming all goes well (certainly not a guarantee), then you can let Derek Roy walk and turn it over to the young center core of Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Zemgus Girgensons (could be ready for NHL time in 2013-14) heading into the 2013-14 season. If you make a trade of Roy or Ennis, you are again leaving yourself thin at the center position.
The Sabres finally have the all-important depth at the center position, ENJOY IT! It doesn’t need to be blown up as soon as they finally achieve that goal. The Sabres depth is vested in potential, Derek Roy is the only proven commodity. The newfound depth at center certainly is promising, but they’re not at the point of surplus just yet.