BUFFALO (LGS) — In Buffalo, the leaves are starting to turn color, the air is crisp once again, and furnaces are kicking on everywhere. This means one important thing: the Buffalo Sabres are back to make another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The highly anticipated 2006-2007 season for the Buffalo Sabres has officially begun. The Sabres carry the hopes and dreams of their fans, and for the first time in team history, many members of the national media consider the Sabres serious Stanley Cup contenders. Some important players have left, but there are some new faces in the locker room as well. While the season is just beginning, the Sabres are set in both mind and body to make a championship run, a run that more and more hockey fans are predicting.
The Buffalo Sabres kicked off the 2006-2007 hockey season with something they’ve rarely carried before: great expectations. Last year, the Sabres’ amazing and heart-capturing ride in the playoffs left an entire region of hockey fans wanting more.
The Sabres, who fell one period short of making the Stanley Cup finals this past season, have enjoyed an early season buzz unlike any in recent franchise history. Sabres defenseman Henrik Tallinder has certainly noticed the difference.
“Everybody is more excited, fans are coming to the practices, the media is all over us, and more reporters are here everyday. It’s fun; I think it’s a good thing. This town has been longing for this a long time,” he said.
On Saturday, September 16, the Sabres held their first open practice of training camp with a surprisingly large and raucous crowd of almost 10,000 on hand at HSBC Arena. The scene, complete with tailgaters, traffic cops, and ushers, appeared more like a regular season game than an inter-squad scrimmage on the third day of training camp. It was a sign that the Sabres have grabbed the attention of their fans and raised expectations this year.
The Sabres, known for being a small market club, have almost doubled their season ticket base in one year. Season tickets were selling so fast that there was talk of capping season ticket sales. Last year, the Sabres had 8,861 season ticket holders. This year, with season ticket sales almost hitting the 14,500 mark and games quickly selling out, it seems that fans really want to be a part of the great things they expect from their hockey club.
“Your ultimate goal is always winning the Cup,” said Sabres back-up goalie, Marty Biron. “We were disappointed last year when were just a period away from going to the finals and getting a shot at the Cup. The ultimate goal is that, and that’s what we want to get going.” The Buffalo Sabres players have the same hopes and expectations as their fans.
Expectations can often become a distraction and even weigh a team down in the journey to capturing Lord Stanley’s Cup. Winning a Cup is a long road that takes over nine months and usually more than 100 games. It will be Buffalo Sabres Head Coach Lindy Ruff’s job to keep his players focused on the job at hand. He said, “I think expectations are good from a standpoint that we’ve earned some respect, but we have to put last year behind us. We have a lot of work to do.”
The Media Fix
After their 53-win season and playoff run last year, the Sabres have become the 2006-2007 in vogue pick to win it all by many members of the hockey media.
Just a couple of days after last season’s Stanley Cup champions, the Carolina Hurricanes, were crowned, Allan Muir, a columnist for Sports Illustrated magazine’s website, made his prediction of the winner of the 2006-2007 Stanley Cup. Muir characterized the Sabres as “the beast of the east” and eventual Cup winners.
Muir, hardly known for writing about or even liking the Sabres, gave a multitude of reasons for his choice to win it all. They included two capable goaltenders, a strong defensive core, three lines of fast, disciplined forwards, and an experienced coaching staff.
Unlike Muir, Kara Yorio, columnist for the Sporting News magazine’s website, picked the Sabres to win at the conclusion of the hockey off-season. Yorio, ranked as an “NHL Expert” by her employer, has officially gone on the record twice with her prediction, on September 5 and 21.
Also, in a recent article by Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press (CP) that polled eight CP sportswriters, an unnamed six out of eight writers picked the Sabres to represent the Eastern conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
An Endless Summer
The Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier was the busiest man in hockey this summer. The Sabres started the 2006 off-season with just three players under contract and a long way to go to recapture the 23-man roster they had last year during their magical ride.
The first item of business for Regier was the NHL’s period of free agency. The team had four important unrestricted free agents (players not under contract, free to sign anywhere) and some tough decisions to make.
When the dust settled, the Sabres key free agent losses were defenseman Jay McKee and forward Mike Grier. McKee, the 2006 NHL leader in blocked shots, left for the St. Louis Blues, and Grier, a big, tough, gritty forward, left for the San Jose Sharks. Also, Regier did not re-sign journeyman-defenseman, Rory Fitzpatrick, but was able to sign veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen to a one-year contract.
During free agency, Regier also signed Jaroslav Spacek, a defenseman from the Edmonton Oilers, known for his mobility and ability to handle the puck in both zones.
In the NHL, any player not under contract who doesn’t meet the terms for unrestricted status, is considered a restricted free agent. A hockey club owns the first right to sign their free agents, but any restricted free agent with four years of accrued NHL experience may apply for salary arbitration.
The Sabres had 12 players—an NHL record—apply for arbitration, but only three players actually made it to the arbitrator’s table. The club was able to work out contracts with nine players before their date of arbitration.
The three players who had arbitration hearings were Daniel Briere, J.P. Dumont, and Adam Mair. Briere, the Sabres co-captain, was awarded a surprisingly large, $5 million award, which the Sabres accepted. The Sabres walked away from a $2.9 million award to Dumont, which made him an unrestricted free agent. And, by NHL rule, had to accept the $675,000 award to Mair because it was under $1.4 million.
This past off-season, many fans expected backup goalie Marty Biron to be traded, but were surprised to find him on the team again this season. Biron, who is far and above the highest paid back-up goalie in the NHL, believes he has the ability to be the number one net-minder for another team. He has publicly stated his desire for a trade, but Darcy Regier has not put a deal together yet.
Only time will tell if the losses of McKee, Grier, and Dumont will have an effect on the team’s overall success and chemistry this year. The Sabres, already a club known for their speed and not their size, lost three big-bodied players, and will have to make up the difference.
The defense, now being lauded for its mobility and puck skills, will have to replace the tough physical presence and shot-blocking McKee was known for. “I think it’s going to be more of a six-man unit, that we have to collectively bump guys and hit guys and try to be physical,” said defenseman Brian Campbell. “And we’re going to have to sacrifice our bodies a lot to block shots.”
The signing of Spacek won’t replace McKee’s physical presence, but will give the Sabres a mobile defenseman whose puck-handling skills are greater than McKee’s.
The forwards, with the loss of Grier, known mostly for his penalty-killing, will also have to replace his tough, gritty work in the corners and physical play along the boards. The Sabres hope that the promotion of the big, physical centerman Niri Novotny from their minor-league affiliate, the Rochester Americans, will help fill that void.
The loss of Dumont will probably have the most effect on the game of Danny Briere, Sabres co-captain and playmaker. “Since day one for me in a Sabres uniform, I’ve always pretty much had J.P. [Dumont] on the one side,” Briere said. “It’s a little bit different that I don’t really know who I’m going to be playing with this year.” Briere, who had a break-out season last year for the Sabres, had been line-mates with Dumont since coming to the Sabres in 2003. The Sabres expect big things from their highest paid player and hope he will find chemistry with another line-mate.
The Sabres had a solid training camp and pre-season, going 5-1, averaging more than four goals per game, and getting good goaltending from both Marty Biron and Ryan Miller, but pre-season success does not always transfer to regular season wins, Sabres Head Coach, Lindy Ruff said. “I liked our training camp, but training camp is over. You don’t get any awards, and you don’t get any place in the standings.”
The Sabres opened their 2006-2007 season the same place it left off last year, the RBC center in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was opening night, October 4, when the Hurricanes hung their championship banner, while the Sabres waited in the locker room. The Sabres did exact a tiny measure of revenge, getting a shoot-out victory 3-2, and taking the first of an 82-game season. Two days later, the Sabres had another impressive comeback win in their home opener against Montreal. The Sabres came back from a two-goal deficit three separate times to then tie the game with 15 seconds left, and get the eventual shootout win.
With the off-season over, the 2006-2007 Sabres look very similar to the 2005-2006 squad. They have returning starting goalie Ryan Miller, a capable back-up goalie in Marty Biron, a solid puck-moving defense, four lines of speedy, skilled forwards, and the longest tenured head coach in hockey.
The main difference between this year and last year is the many sport writers picking the Sabres to win it all instead of finishing at the bottom of the NHL. So far, so good—Cup glory is only 100 games away.
Jason Tracy is the Features Editor for Generation, a student magazine published at the University at Buffalo. Besides reading his columns on LGS.com, you can read Jason's work by picking up a Generation which is available at UB and many of the establishments near both campuses.