Gambling is running rampant in Buffalo these days. While recently signed legislation may bring a casino to the area, a number of parties are involved in a high-stakes game that in a perfect NHL world, if there is such a thing, would lead to local ownership, a decent hockey team and packed houses.
Rarely does everyone hit on the long shot, which is why this dose of preview information comes with a heavy heaping of caution; there’s a slim chance that 2002-03 is a farewell tour for the Sabres. The shortest odds, however, are on a three-headed group of not-so-local businessmen -- Sherry Bassin, Alan Maislin and Frank DuRoss, each of whom has had success as a minor-league owner -- offering nearly $100 million to buy the team. Then the NHL has to gamble on the gamblers. One final gamble rests in the hands of the fans.
Just as winning the caddie tournament at Bushwood might look pretty good on a young man’s scholarship application, increasing a meager season ticket base might be the key to keeping the Sabres in Buffalo. (The Buffalo News reported that number to be fewer than 6,300 in late August.) In an effort to make sure, the team has embarked on a “It’s Our Team -- Let’s Keep It That Way” campaign, leaving local celebs like Tim Russert and the Goo Goo Dolls in the unlikely position as possible Sabres saviors.
Will the new owner, the league and the fans drive new life into the team? It’s a bet worth taking; the real gamble is whether the product on the ice will warrant the 11th-hour efforts on this one-time Cinderella.
Martin Biron, G -- OK, kid. You got the job. In his first season as the undisputed No. 1, Biron worked in 72 games, which tied a franchise record for a goaltender, and he avoided arbitration when he signed a two-year, $4.1 million deal. (His offseason also included a wedding and his 25th birthday.) Although Biron’s 2002-03 wasn’t always consistent, he was never more than three games from .500. He finished the season 31-28-10, but was three games below .500 on Jan. 3. In the 36 games that followed, Biron allowed fewer than three goals 26 times, including his fourth shutout of the season in the season finale. Behind Biron and Mika Noronen in the young goaltender’s club, the Sabres also added 2001 Hobey Baker winner Ryan Miller.
Balanced production -- The ownership situation, obviously, is the weakest aspect of team, but the on-ice product is more immediately affected by the fact that after Miro Satan’s 73 points, Buffalo’s second-highest scorer, Stu Barnes, put up 48 points. Satan’s 37 goals also led the team, whose second-leading goal scorer, J.P. Dumont, scored 23 goals and endured one 13- and two eight-game droughts.
There is pressure on the dazzling but incomplete Maxim Afinogenov (21 goals, minus-9), sophomore slumper Tim Connolly (10 goals the past two seasons), enigmatic Chris Gratton (followed a very good 2001 playoffs with a disappointing 2001-02) and, of course, Satan, whose 2001-02 production wasn’t in line with the 40-33-29 he’d scored in the three seasons prior.Alexei Zhitnik?" but it turns out he was in Buffalo all along, which can’t be said of Mike Peca or Dominik Hasek. Over the course of the past few years, the Sabres' talent pool has been slowly leaking; their captain is Stu Barnes, a spunky player one wouldn’t mind having on any number of second or third lines in the NHL. But is he a first-line center? In Buffalo he is. And this may be precisely the problem.
If the youngsters, however, especially Taylor Pyatt (10 goals in 48 games) can start finding the back of the net without giving up too much defensively, the Sabres just might have a playoff team.
The other question is just how much the ownership issue will affect the team. Biron told the Buffalo News that his role as a player is to “respond to the coaching staff.” In that case, if the Bassin-Nolan ties incite speculation over Lindy Ruff’s job security, the tables are set for controversy.
Perhaps defenseman Henrik Tallinder is a more promising prospect on the verge of playing in the NHL, but Milley’s camp is closer to a make-or-break proposition. Milley was a late cut late in Buffalo’s 2001 training camp and was returned to Rochester, where he’d scored 20 goals and 47 points in 2000-01. Over 74 games in 2001-02, Milley again scored 20 goals but managed only 38 points.
Jamie MacDonald is a CNNSI.com producer based in New York.