Buffalo, NY (LGS) -- While there have been Buffalo Sabres teams that had better goaltending or better offense or maybe even better defense, there has never been a better Sabres team assembled than the 2006-2007 edition. There it is, written plain and simply for all to see. This is the best Sabres team the National Hockey League has ever seen.
The Sabres will open their 2006 campaign this Wednesday in Raleigh where they take on the Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes -- a sentence that stings the heart by just reading it.
Buffalo's quest for glory will start where it ended one unfortunate night in early June when Carolina defeated the injury-riddled Sabres in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. There was a feeling after the Sabres dusted by the Ottawa Senators in the Second Round that this was the year that Buffalo gets its championship and nothing will stop it from happening. Unfortunately, "curse-like" injuries did just that. Carolina was a good team, maybe even great, but if the Sabres had been healthy it would have never stood a chance, and you wouldn't find one player from last year's Sabres team who would say otherwise.
"It stung all summer," Sabres' co-captain Daniel Briere said. "The tough part was realizing we were a period away, with the lead, from playing for the Stanley Cup."
"I grew up watching every Stanley Cup Final since I was 7 or 8 years old. We had the taste in our mouths, but we didn't get to swallow it. Now we have to start all over again."
The Sabres will re-start their quest with the bulk of the team returning. Longtime mainstay on defense Jay McKee, forward J.P. Dumont and unsung playoff hero Mike Grier are gone. Also not returning to the team are Taylor Pyatt and Rory Fitzpatrick. GM Darcy Regier signed defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to fill the void left behind by McKee, but the organization chose to promote from within to replace Dumont and Grier after the success it had last season with its younger players.
CENTERS OF ATTENTION:
Who's on the first line? Who's on the fourth line? That's a great question often asked by Sabres' opponents. Unfortunately for them, there really is no answer. The Sabres' forwards are a pack that attack in all different ways. Led by Briere, Buffalo's $5.0 million dollar man, the Sabres will continue to terrorize opposing defenses with their blazing speed, smooth skating and crisp passing.
Briere must continue to produce his point-per-game output to make his pay as he'll most likely center Buffalo's "first line." Briere has progressed into a better player each season since Buffalo traded for the pint-size center in 2003. There's no reason to believe he won't continue that trend this season. Briere is a fan favorite and all-around good guy. Unlike other superstars in the league, Danny would be the first to tell you he needs to earn his paycheck this season.
Co-captain Chris Drury will anchor Buffalo's "other first line." Drury led the team in goals last season with 30 and is in the final year of his contract before turning into an unrestricted free agent. Derek Roy will center Buffalo's third line, which on certain nights might look more like the top line. The charismatic 5'9" center won over a lot of hockey experts with his great performance in the playoffs. Roy will give you 120% every shift, and he'll give you a stick to the face if you look at him the wrong way. He plays like Doug Gilmour, and on most nights it seems as if every player he plays against wants to run him through the boards.
The X-Factor down the middle remains Buffalo's uber-talented Tim Connolly. Connolly finally turned into the player the Sabres dreamt about for many years before suffering a major concussion in the Ottawa series. Depending on who you ask, Connolly's return from his post-concussion syndrome is either going well or horribly wrong. The Sabres have been quiet on the issue, but Connolly has stated he will return this season and be better than ever. The Sabres and their fans can only hope for now.
BLAZIN' BUFFALO WINGS:
From Afinogenov to Zagrapan, Buffalo is loaded with speed on the wings. Maxim Afinogenov led the team in points last year but had a disappointing performance in the playoffs. Whether or not Max can find a scoring touch remains to be seen, but one thing for certain is that he'll lift fans off their seats each and every time he touches the puck.
Jason Pominville -- last year's zero-to-hero story -- will be asked to assume the role left behind by Dumont. Both players are eerily similar in the way they play. Where Dumont had more physical strength expect Pominville to make up for it with speed and intelligence.
Speaking of strength, have you seen Ales Kotalik yet? He's bigger, leaner and his shot is actually harder. Buffalo rewarded Kotalik with a big contract over the past summer and instead of taking it easy like many athletes do when they get their pay day, Kotalik actually promised the Sabres he would come back a better player. If there's a five-on-three situation, you can bet your house that Kotalik will be on the ice waiting to release his blistering one-timer.
It seemed like whenever Jochen Hecht was healthy last season the Sabres almost always won. He is the type of player any team would love to have. Offensively or defensively, you can always expect the German winger to make the right play. Consistency is what plagued rookie winger Thomas Vanek last season, which saw him end the year in the press box as a healthy scratch. Reports are still mixed on the Austrian, but his preseason performance makes many think he's primed and ready to break out offensively. Talent-wise, he might be the best player next to Connolly. His commitment must be there, or he'll quickly find his way into coach Lindy Ruff's doghouse.
Youngsters Jiri Novotny and Daniel Paille will round out the roster. Novotny is the most likely to be in the lineup at the start of the season. If either slips, Buffalo has a plethora of talent waiting in the wings in Rochester with guys like Drew Stafford, Clark MacArthur, Mike Ryan and Marek Zagrapan.
BANG BANG BANG!
If you're an astute Sabres fan you'll notice I left off three big forwards: center Paul Gaustad and wingers Adam Mair and Andrew Peters. Gaustad was the giant surprise from the 2005 Sabres training camp. The Sabres didn't even know how good he was until he came into camp and proved he belonged with the big squad. Gaustad will center Buffalo's fourth line which will definitely deserve the nickename of the "BANG" line.
Mair has had a great training camp and looks fresh after recovering from post-concussion syndrome from late last season. He's the type of player who will go through a wall for his teammates. Besides being a grinder, he does have a touch in front of the net which he hopes to show this season.
Andrew Peters -- who didn't see a second of ice time in the playoffs -- was given orders by Lindy Ruff to lose weight and get in better shape so he could fit into the plans the team had for him. Contrary to popular belief, Peters can bring more to the table than knocking out opponents. Off the ice, Peters is a major part of the team. Those close to the team say Peters is like a glue when it comes to keeping the players together. Buffalo's BANG line will be relied upon to swing momentum and bring energy into the game.
To the man, the Sabres have probably the fastest and most mobile defense in the league. Opposing teams have a hard time cracking the Buffalo defense and an even harder time containing them. The loss of Jay McKee hurt but Buffalo did very well in picking up Jaroslav Spacek. McKee might have led the league in blocked shots last season, but Spacek wasn't too far behind. Buffalo hopes Spacek is the defenseman they've been looking for to quarterback their power play. Plus, if you thought Kotalik had a hard shot, wait until you see Spacek's low-driving laser.
Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman will be Buffalo's main anchors on defense. Lindy Ruff almost exclusively uses the two to shut down opposing team's top lines. Offensively they'll contribute some points, but defensively is where they'll be counted on.
Wily old veteran Teppo Numminen, who looks like he could be the grandfather of the entire team, was a rock last season. He simply makes no mistakes. Expect more of the same for the Finnish veteran.
Brian Campbell -- just saying his name conjures up images of "THE HIT" -- has progressed from that guy Sabres fans loved to hate, a la Richard Smehlik or Mike Wilson, to a surprisingly solid two-way defensemen. Everyone knew he was talented offensively, but Brian showed he's just as good in his own zone. Along with Spacek, Campbell will most certainly be on the power play. Expect both to pick up a plethora of assists this season.
Perhaps the most frustrating player from last season was Dmitri Kalinin. He has the makings of a top-five NHL defenseman but can't stay healthy long enough to show everyone. It seemed like every time Dmitri hit his stride last season, he suffered another injury. It would have been easy for Buffalo to walk away from Dmitri, but they're giving him another chance and I applaud that. He is that X-Factor on defense.
Nathan Paetsch fills in as Buffalo's seventh defenseman. The Sabres view him as their future, and they probably expect to work him into the lineup much more this season whether to fill in for an injured defenseman or to spell Numminen for a night or two. Andrej Sereka is not to far behind on the depth chart.
Buffalo's Achilles' heel remains the defensive depth after Paetsch and Sereka. There are a lot of question marks in Rochester and due to reaching the maximum salary cap, Buffalo couldn't add depth to its blueline. Hopefully, fate will be kind to the Sabres' defensemen this season.
TWO'S NOT A CROWD:
Only a handful of teams in the NHL can say they have two legitimate number-one goaltenders, and the Buffalo Sabres are one of them. Darcy Regier refuses to trade Biron for anything he doesn't deem of fair value. This leaves Buffalo with a great insurance policy.
Ryan Miller comes off a tremendous season which saw him rewarded with a long term contract. He's not the flashy goaltender that Dominik Hasek was, but he is just as good in his own way. Where Hasek made saves that would defy logic, Miller almost always remains in the perfect position to make any save look routine. At times he's in such good position that he's almost boring to watch.
Biron returns to Buffalo, and unlike most goaltenders who know they're good enough to be a number one, he's not mad or even seen as a threat to cause dissension in the locker room. Miller and Biron are good friends and Miller has stated in the past that Biron has helped him improve and grow his game. Marty will most likely be called upon to play one out of four games until that one fateful day when another GM with injured goalies gives in to the stubborn Regier.
Lindy Ruff, who's been here so long you'd be hard pressed to remember if Buffalo ever had another head coach, proved last season that he is without a doubt the best coach in the league. While many wrote off the Sabres as nothing more than an Eastern Conference bottom feeder, Lindy played his cards right from Day One. He created a winning atmosphere where he needed every player to buy into the team-first approach. He has an uncanny ability to get every ounce of effort from all his players.
Brian McCutcheon enters his seventh season as a member of the Buffalo coaching staff. He was promoted to associate head coach over the offseason and will oversee the forwards and power play.
Former Sabres defenseman James Patrick returns to replace Scott Arniel, who left the coaching staff to become the head coach of the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. Patrick was credited with tutoring Dmitri Kalinin, Brian Campbell, Henrik Tallinder and others during his playing time in Buffalo. He will oversee the defense.
Darcy Regier -- love him or hate him -- has built a solid foundation that will keep the Sabres playoff contenders for many years to come. The Biron situation is very puzzling, but you can't blame the guy for not giving away a great insurance policy for less than he believes the team deserves.
The front office, led by owner Tom Golisano and team president Larry Quinn, has saved the Sabres from oblivion. It's hard to imagine that the Buffalo Sabres were destined to failure just a few years ago. Since Day One of the Golisano era, everything this organization has touched has turned into gold ... well, everything except the logo. That's still kind of banana yellow.
This past offseason proved that you never know what to expect when the season ends. Saying 2007 is Buffalo's last chance of winning the Stanley Cup might be overboard, but it is certainly fair to say this is Buffalo's best chance to win the Cup. If they can't reach Stanley Cup lore this season, they might be hard pressed to retain most of the roster next offseason.
While there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered -- Will Connolly fully recover? Can the defense stay healthy? Will Vanek and the other younger players continue to improve? -- expect the Sabres to run away with the Northeast Division this season. While the Senators will be tough again, and Montreal, Boston and Toronto did their best to improve, the Sabres should be on another level.
This might be the first time since ever that I can honestly say I fully expect the Sabres to win the Stanley Cup, and I'm not alone in that belief. Just ask any of the guys wearing numbers on the front of their jerseys this season.
Are you ready NHL, 'cause here come the Buffalo Sabres... again!