Buffalo Sabres Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
It's hard to believe that the Buffalo Sabres are just four years removed from playing in the Stanley Cup finals.
Then again, hockey fans in western New York who lived through the unglorious end to the Rigas family's ownership era probably feel like it's been 40 years.
The Sabres are a respectable 143-134-37-14 since Brett Hull's skate-in-the-crease goal ended the 1999 finals, so while it hasn't been an unmitigated disaster over the past four seasons, there just hasn't been much to get excited about.
The Sabres were saved from the verge of relocation by Rochester billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, and a new, positive outlook has swept over the organization. Despite finishing with just 72 points (good for 12th place in the Eastern Conference), the Sabres are talking about a return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
The Sabres acquired Chris Drury and Steve Begin in a three-way deal with Calgary and Colorado, while also adding offensive defenseman Andy Delmore from Nashville. These moves upgraded Buffalo's top line and power play significantly. Drury's playmaking skills and knack for finding the net at clutch times, in addition to Delmore's heavy shot from the point, should help the Sabres improve what was only the 20th-ranked (14.4 percent) power play a year ago.
Signing restricted free agent Drury to a lucrative new four-year deal was a bit of a surprising move considering the possibility of a 2004 owner's lockout, but it showed the commitment of the new ownership regime to bring winning hockey back to Buffalo very soon.
"We made some good acquisitions this summer," Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said. "Drury is a proven winner and he's a game breaker. He's a guy who can make a difference, and anytime you can grab ahold of a guy who can make a difference in a hockey game it can only make you better. Drury and Delmore -- and getting Daniel Briere at the end of the last year -- are all going to help us. And with our new ownership group, there is a lot to be excited about."
The surprise hit in Buffalo last season was rookie Ales Kotalik, who scored 21 goals in 68 games. Kotalik and Miroslav Satan will benefit from having Drury play between them on the top line, and the Sabres are hoping both wingers will net 30 this year.
Buffalo also came out nicely on its deadline deal with Phoenix which netted Briere in exchange for underachieving Chris Gratton. Briere struggled for much of the season with the Coyotes, but finished strong with 12 points in 14 games as a Sabre. He clicked centering the second line with J.P. Dumont and Jochen Hecht, so Ruff is hopeful that this trio will remain a viable scoring theat as a second unit.
The team will head to training camp with eight guys battling for six spots on the bottom two lines. Maxim Afinovgenov, Eric Boulton, Curtis Brown, Tim Connolly, Adam Mair and Taylor Pyatt are likely to form the bottom-six forwards in some combination, with Begin and 2003 Memorial Cup MVP Derek Roy also in the mix. The Sabres also could bring up talented youngsters like Milan Bartovic, Paul Gaustad, Jiri Novotny, Jason Pominville and Chris Thorburn for looks this season.
Making the playoffs would be a big step forward, but with a new vibe around the entire organization the Sabres are ready for a fresh start, and anything is possible in the wide-open East.
Tom Golisano, owner -- If the Sabres weren't in hell last season, they could at least see if from where they were. A year clouded by an uncertain future ended when Golisano formally took control of the Sabres on March 14, four months after he initially was eliminated as a candidate.
The Mark Hamister-led group, which initially had a $13 million bigger offer than Golisano, couldn't close the deal, and the NHL allowed Golisano (listed as the 348th wealthiest person in the world at $1.2 billion, according to Forbes) to come in with his $92 million offer to buy the bankrupt franchise.
"It has allowed people to get back to work, to get refocused on the things we were hired to do," general manager Darcy Regier said this summer. "I think from the whole organizational standpoint, it's certainly a lot better."
The 61-year-old Golisano kept Ruff and Regier despite last season's struggles, and brought back former team president Larry Quinn as his new managing partner. After living through a full year of uncertainty, Ruff is excited to have stability in the ownership group and know that things are looking up in Buffalo again.
"Tom has been awesome," Ruff said. "He's the first to admit that hockey isn't his area of expertise. A lot of times he has his opinions, but he's reliant on the people he's appointed to make those decisions. But it's great to see how excited he is. He's a big fan of the game and he's looking forward to have a great year, too.
"I think all of a sudden there is some stability. Tom stepped in and said he's going to keep the team in western New York and that he's going to try to make it a viable proposition here. There was a lot of speculation that if there was no ownership the team may leave. And I don't think that's one thing this area can afford."
If not for Golisano's persistence, the Sabres might be playing in Portland or Houston. Certainly Satan and Zhitnik could qualify for the Sabres' on-ice go-to guys, but Golisano wins out by saving the franchise from a possible move.
Offense -- Buffalo lit the lamp just 190 times last year, the sixth fewest in the league and the fewest in franchise history. The Sabres have plenty of players capable of scoring 20 goals -- Afinogenov, Briere, Brown, Drury, Dumont, Kotalik and Satan all have at various points in their career -- but youngsters Connolly and Pyatt need to chip in with more offense from their checking roles.
"We need to do more offensively," Ruff said. "If we're better offensively it will relieve a little bit of the pressure on our goaltenders so that they don't always have to pitch a one-goal game for us to get points. Our penalty killing and defensive play has always been strong, so more offense and more consistent goaltending are the two areas we are looking to improve."
The Sabres realize a full season of Briere and a return to health by Afinogenov and Hecht will boost their offensive capability from the forwards. And Delmore tied Nicklas Lidstrom and Sergei Gonchar for the league lead among defensemen, though with a minus-17 rating Delmore remains a defensive liability. But the Sabres didn't trade for him thinking they were getting a Norris Trophy candidate -- they wanted him for his offensive abilities.
How does three go into two?
The Sabres have a bit of a math problem in goal. They have three potential No. 1 netminders, but only two spots on the roster to fill.
Martin Biron has compiled a 75-85-20 and 2.42 goals-against average in 194 NHL games, so he will go in to camp as the man to beat. But Mika Noronen was impressive at the end of last season after playing a fourth season with the Rochester Americans in the AHL. Lastly, 2001 Hobey Baker Award winner Ryan Miller complicates things, though his 15-game NHL stint last season was hot or cold.
"Camp for them is going to be very competitive for them," Ruff said. "They all have experience now, and they all believe that they can be a No. 1. And I think they all think they can be our No. 1 this year, so we are looking for one, two or all three of them to make a big statement in camp."
Ruff's camp conundrum is actually a coach's dream scenario. Competition usually brings out the best in players, and the odd man out in this battle either will be traded or sent down to the AHL.
The safest bet is that Miller will head to Rochester to begin the season, but will end up in Buffalo if the team can deal Biron or Noronen.
Thomas Vanek, LW, 6-2, 208 pounds
The Sabres used the fifth pick in June's draft to select Vanek, marking Buffalo's highest pick since it took Pierre Turgeon No. 1 overall in 1987. Vanek became the highest Austrian-born player ever taken in the draft after leading Minnesota to its fifth national title -- and second in a row -- as a freshman.
Vanek finished sixth in the NCAA in scoring at 62 points (31 goals, 31 assists in 45 games) and has the skills to become a 30- to 40-goal scorer in the NHL. He has excellent hands, but isn't a great skater, making his game somewhat reminiscent of Milan Hejduk's.
The Sabres had a great view to scout Vanek with the Frozen Four taking place at HSBC Arena the week after the 2002-03 NHL regular season ended. Vanek was a likely top-10 pick heading into the NCAA tournament, but his draft stock soared as a result of his incredible postseason, which included the game-winning goals in both the semifinal and championship game. True to his clutch nature, 17 of his 31 goals were scored in the third period or overtime, a fact the Sabres really liked.
"We're delighted with this pick," Regier said on draft day. "So many of his goals were in crucial situations, and that's something we need."
The Sabres opted not to sign Vanek this summer, preferring to let him spend another season at Minnesota before re-evaluating his situation.
"There was some thought [to signing him], but the decision at the end of the day was probably for his development it would be best for him to play in Minnesota," Ruff said. "He's a very special goal scorer. There were some highlight-reel goals. I saw him score some goals that not many people can score. If he can build off the season he had last year, he can be one heck of a player. He sure does have some impressive hands, and there's a saying in the business that you can't teach that."
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.