Buffalo is a No. 1 center away from being the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, a lofty position the Sabres might be approaching too cautiously. Buffalo made a run at 35-year-old free-agent star center Ron Francis during the summer but balked at offering him a four-year deal, which is what he signed with Carolina. Maybe the Sabres were unwilling to commit to a player who would be nearing 40 at the end of the contract, but management also might have been tacitly revealing that it doubts the team can win the Stanley Cup in the next two years, when Francis presumably will be at the top of his game.
Still, the Sabres, conference finalists last spring, should flourish, especially if the NHL continues its crackdown on obstruction. Buffalo forwards, a smallish group of natural 20-goal scorers, are fast, though a shade homogenous. Matthew Barnaby and Michael Peca, however, add other important dimensions. Barnaby sulked through the regular season but exploded in the first two playoff rounds, not only in his familiar role as the chronic pest, but also as Buffalo's leading scorer. Peca is the NHL's top defensive center, but the captain grew so gaunt by the end of the extended playoff run that goalie Dominik Hasek could have used him as a stick. Peca needs to bulk up physically and repair his reputation in the dressing room; it took a hit when he declined to change his wedding date, which would have fallen on the date of Game 6 of the Cup finals, had the Sabres advanced that far.
Hasek also had a full calendar. He accepted the MVP award for the second straight season before returning home to the Czech Republic. He even found time to make his acting debut on Arli$$, though his role as a goalie who imbibes too much one night didn't thrill Sabres management, which was mindful that Hasek had pleaded guilty to impaired driving in April 1995. But Hasek is the Sabres' marquee performer. If the smaller crease doesn't adversely affect him (Hasek likes to sprawl unimpeded), he should continue to press his claim as one of the best goalies ever.
Now if Hasek could win some face-offs and set up some first-line wingers, Buffalo would really be in business.