After reading, hearing and seeing the reaction of fans over the past week, I realized members of Sabres Nation might need some reassurances about our young team. As I wrote the headline for this column, a disturbing yet hilarious image sprang to mind... an image of a young, panicked and red-faced Kevin Bacon shouting "Remain calm! ... All is well!" As Bacon shouted that statement during the homecoming parade scene in the movie "Animal House," a crowd of panicked onlookers stampeded him into the pavement.
Even after dropping their first two games to the Islanders, I don't believe for a minute that our beloved Sabres will be stampeded into the pavement this season. In fact, I believe the first two games against a well-coached but inferior opponent – on paper – maybe just what this team needed to get them to remember the hard work that is necessary to succeed in the NHL.
This current team must channel the 2005-2006 Sabres, whose hard work ethic and never-say-die attitude brought the team to the brink of its third appreance in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Although no one likes losing the first two games of a season, a small history lesson should help with some perspective. In fact, in the first two seasons following the NHL Lockout, the Sabres went through considerable personnel changes. Each year they still found a way to flourish.
In the first season following the lockout, the Sabres returned to the ice with a variety of rookies in key positions – Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy – and another key player who had not played in two years – Tim Connolly . They were without their top goal scorer (Miroslav Satan) and top defenseman (Alexei Zhitnik).
The Sabres stumbled out of the gate. They won their first two but then lost seven of the next 12 before finding their legs and finishing 11-9 at the quarter pole. Amazingly, the team soon gelled and exploded on the league. They won 16 of the next 21 to finish the first half with a stunning 27-12-2 record.
Lindy Ruff's 2005-06 squad continued its stellar play for the remainder of the season. They finished 52-24-6 for the fifth-best record in the league. The team played solid defense (finishing ninth in goals against), excellent offense (fifth in goals scored) and was awesome on special teams.
The squad carried its momentum deep into the playoffs before bowing in a thrilling seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals to eventually Cup Champions the Carolina Hurricanes. Most fans attributed the loss to a spate of injuries that left them with only four regular defensemen during the Conference Finals.
This team succeeded with a youthful and inexperienced roster because these same young players stepped into the leadership and production void created by the departures of Satan and Zhitnik. Free agent signee Teppo Numminen as well as the emergence of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder more than made up for the loss of Zhitnik. Centers Danny Briere and Connolly far and away replaced Satan's lost production.
In fact, the departure of Satan, Zhitnik and others gave many young players the opportunity to finally play in the NHL. The production of rookie sensations Thomas Vanek, Paul Gaustad, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy gave the Sabres three lines that could score at any time. This enabled Ruff to change the team's playing style from a trapping defense-first team to an up tempo counter-attacking style perfect for the new NHL. Ruff was awarded the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year for the Sabres' transformation.
The following summer, the Sabres again had an eventful off-season. Management worked diligently to lock up the young lineup. In consequence, the team butted up against the Salary Cap and was unable to retain the services of veteran leaders Jay McKee, Mike Grier and J.P. Dumont. In addition, key center Tim Connolly remained on injured reserve for the upcoming season. Many observers thought the team would remain strong and contend for the Stanley Cup. However, many worried that the team lost much of its physical presence and leadership.
In spite of the key off-season losses, the Sabres bolted out of the gate last year, winning their first 10 games and finishing the first quarter of the season with a 16-3-1 mark. The squad played a flashy speed game and dominated teams under a crushing and relentless three-line offensive attack. They finished the first half of the season with a wonderful record of 29-9-3.
The only things that seemed to slow the team's momentum were mediocre special teams and a seemingly endless string of injuries to key personnel in the second half of the season. Despite the injuries and poor special teams, the Sabres persevered under the leadership of Co-Captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere. They completed the year with an NHL-best record of 53-22-7, winning the Presidents' Trophy for the first time in franchise history. They led the NHL with 308 goals, won the Northeast Division and returned to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Again the off-season voids were ably filled by current team members. Second-year performers Roy, Vanek and Pominville flourished with their additional responsibility, easily surpassing the lost offensive production from Dumont and Grier. Although free agent Jaro Spacek was unable to fill McKee's skates, the continued improvement in Brian Campbell's game arguably compensated for McKee's departure to St. Louis.
Simply put, the Sabres have been able to overcome significant free agent departures and not only endure but thrive. Ruff deftly altered the team's style of play to fit his personnel and placed the players in the roles most fitting their skills.
WHERE ARE WE NOW
Last season saw career years from Briere, Drury, Vanek, Roy and Miller, and it brought about even more changes to the Sabres in the offseason. Sabres' management failed to lockup Briere and Drury, and both were lost immediately when the free agency period began. Learning their lesson the hard way, Sabres GM Darcy Regier signed Roy to a long-term deal and matched Edmonton's lucrative long-term offer to Vanek.
With the co-captains gone, the critics have shuffled Buffalo down the ladder of NHL power rankings. They say the squad has lost its heart and soul as well as the keys to the up tempo offense. After watching the first two games, many Sabre fans are ready to agree.
However, a closer inspection of the roster should calm any fears of full franchise collapse this season. The team possesses an excellent coach and strong group of young gifted players who have the playoff experience of seasoned veterans.
Even without the prized centers, the Sabres return a roster full of fast and skilled forwards. The lineup features four returning forwards who have scored 20 or more goals last season. Vanek (43 goals), Pominville (34), Max Afinogenov (23 in 56 games) and Roy (21) are the Sabres' top returning snipers. Add the 19 goals from Jochen Hecht to the mix and you have a solid a corps of proven scorers.
Amazingly three of the Sabres' most skilled forwards don't appear on the list. Oft-injured center Tim Connolly returned to the ice healthy this year. He is only 26, and before his concussion in the 2006 playoffs Connolly emerged as one of the Sabres' most dynamic young forwards. He has the skills and potential to replace much of the scoring lost when Briere left for the Flyers. Ales Kotalik possesses one of the Sabres' best cannons. He scored 77 goals over the last four seasons, including 25 in 2005-06 when teamed with Connolly.
In addition to Connolly and Kotalik, the Sabres' lineup boasts one of the top second-year players in the NHL in Drew Stafford. In his first year in professional hockey the Milwaukee native netted 13 goals and 14 assists in only 41 NHL games. He added another 22 goals and 22 assists in 34 games for the Rochester Americans of the AHL. Besides the obvious offensive skills, Stafford plays the physical brand of two-way hockey adored by fans and coaches, something that was missing on the Sabres roster since the departure of Mike Grier.
Add the physical presence of Paul Gaustad to the eight scoring threats, and the Sabres might have the deepest roster of forwards in the NHL. The Sabres' deep roster should enable the team to weather injury storms and periodic poor performances as they have done in prior years. The deep roster also will continue to make it hard for most NHL teams to defend the team.
The most stable part of the Sabres' roster during the last two seasons has been in goal and on defense. Ryan Miller won the battle for the starting goaltender position over Mika Noronen and Marty Biron two years ago and hasn't looked back since. He posted 30 wins in 2005-06 and 40 wins last season. He has proven over the last two springs that he is one of the elite playoff goaltenders in the NHL. His steady play in goal has enabled the Sabres to play their up-tempo style.
His shaky performances in this season's first two games notwithstanding, Miller is one of the finest young goaltenders in the NHL and has consistently shown the ability to shake off poor performances. Along with Vanek and Roy, Miller is the cornerstone of the franchise. Free agent acquisition Jocelyn Thibault gives the Sabres a proven netminder who can spell Miller without a significant drop in the quality of play.
In front of Miller is a solid corps of proven defensemen. With six players returning from last year's defense, the group should continue to display a high level of play. All six starters have good speed, solid shots and fine stick-handling ability. Although most of the players stand over 6 feet tall, they often lack a physical presence. Despite this shortcoming, they have proven to be a very effective unit over the last two years. Led by all-star Brian Campbell and Henrik Tallinder, the group has consistently shown the ability to effectively start the team's transition game and contribute on offense.
The loss of Teppo Numminen is the most significant change on the blue line. This veteran leader is recovering from offseason heart surgery, and there is no timetable for his return. However, his slot is being more than ably filled by second year player Nathan Paetsch. Paetsch, a former seventh round draft pick, proved his worth to the organization through his excellent play while filling in for injured Sabres defensemen. Paetsch appeared in 63 games as a rookie scoring two goals and 22 assists and finishing with a +10. In addition, the improvement shown by Spacek and Dmitri Kalinin in the first two games should also help compensate for the loss of Numminen and may ultimately be a catalyst for improved special teams.
Any time an organization goes through the upheaval that the Sabres experienced this past offseason there is going to be some period of adjustment as players find their roles and as coach Lindy Ruff finds what new line combinations and defensive pairings will thrive. However, the Sabres have the skill and experience to excel again this season. They can skate with any team, score with any team and have a proven playoff netminder. With all these pieces in place it is only a matter of time until the new lineup begins to blossom into a contender. I fully expect that by the quarter pole of this season, we the fans will know in what direction this club is heading, and that direction will be north in the standings.
Unfortunately, change is now inevitable in the new NHL. The Salary Cap, like the one in the NFL, forces teams to make critical personnel assessments each offseason. Teams that make the correct choices endure (aka the New England Patriots). Teams that make the wrong decisions wither and die (aka the Buffalo Bills). The formula for success is drafting well and signing the key players to long-term deals.
I believe that the Sabres are becoming the New England Patriots of the new NHL and will continue to flourish without Briere and Drury, just as they have done without Satan, Zhitnik, McKee, Grier and Dumont.
Disclaimer: The following predictions are worth what you paid for them.
Just for the record: Ottawa wins the NE, Pittsburgh the Atlantic and Carolina the SE. The NY Rangers, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Philly and Washington will round out the Eastern playoff teams.
Out West, Colorado wins the NW, Detroit the Central and San Jose the Pacific. Anaheim, Calgary, Nashville and Minnesota also make the playoffs. I'm looking for Ottawa to face San Jose in the finals with San Jose winning it all.