Back in the good old days in Buffalo last winter, the overachieving Sabres shocked the NHL by rolling to a 40-30-12 record and a Northeast Division title. So how did the folks in upstate New York celebrate? Consider what Team Dysfunction has done in the past few months:
•Fired general manager John Muckler, the league's executive of the year.
•Allowed Ted Nolan, the NHL's coach of the year, whose contract had expired, to leave after goalie Dominik Hasek said his departure would be better for Buffalo.
•Encouraged center Pat LaFontaine, the Sabres' top offensive weapon, to retire.
•Hired a new general manager, Darcy Regier, who wasn't supported by one of Buffalo's top investors, John Rigas.
Of course, this doesn't include forward Matthew Barnaby's vain threat to run Hasek in practice over the Nolan comment, the departure of popular defenseman Garry Galley by way of free agency and the absence of restricted free agent Mike Peca, the NHL's top defensive forward, who as of Monday had yet to agree on a contract.
So what does it all mean? "We're a bunch of misfits," says Brad May, Buffalo's rugged forward. "There've been some bad things happening around here, but as a team on the ice, I think we're together."
From Hasek's weirdness—May affectionately calls him "a different bird"—to LaFontaine's strange situation (he hadn't been cleared by team doctors to play after suffering a concussion last season, and on Monday the Sabres traded him to the Rangers), Buffalo might have difficulty paying its shrink bills, let alone playing hockey. For the Sabres to repeat last season's head-turning run, the designated bruisers, forwards Barnaby, May and Rob Ray, must continue their cranium-into-the-boards style, which wears the opposition down. Says May, "Do we have the talent of Philadelphia? No. But the team that plays the hardest usually wins."
When that doesn't work, this team has a chance because it has one of the NHL's best—and oddest—goaltenders. Hasek, the league's MVP last season, is also the enigma who attacked a newspaper reporter and who missed most of the playoffs with a slight knee sprain. When he's on, says Regier, Hasek "is a guy who can carry your team." When he's off, Hasek's, well, a different bird.
In Buffalo, it won't be an easy flight.