In many ways, the Buffalo Sabres have been the NHL's most intriguing team since the lockout ended. And that isn't likely to change this season, despite a summer in which they lost their two captains to free agency.
|Teppo Numminen and the Sabres hope to remain a top-tier team. (Getty Images)|
But what the Sabres did come back with was a speedy lineup and a style of play that turned out to be ideally suited for the league's new wide-open game. So after going through three consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance, Buffalo made it all the way to Game 7 of the 2005 conference finals in that first season back, losing a heartbreaker after being forced to play the deciding game without its top four defensemen. That stunning success and the ability of Buffalo to keep much of its lineup intact made the Sabres more than a fashionable pick to win it all last season.
For a while, it seemed possible, because the Sabres busted out of the gate with a record-tying 10-game winning streak and ended up winning the Presidents' Trophy. But after getting past the New York teams in the first two rounds without much trouble, the Sabres were caught flat-footed in losing the Eastern finals to Ottawa. And when the free-agent market opened in July, the Sabres got an even harsher dose of reality.
Buffalo lost co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in the first couple of hours, which was surprising only because the conventional wisdom was that they would be able to retain at least one. Instead, Briere, the team's leading scorer and the All-Star Game MVP, signed an eight-year, $52 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, while Drury, who had 37 goals and was the team's biggest clutch playoff performer, bolted for a five-year, $35 million deal with the New York Rangers.
Then the Sabres were forced to strain their already-tight budget by forking out $50 million, including $10 million this season, to match the stunning offer sheet rising young sniper Thomas Vanek received from the Edmonton Oilers.
On the surface, the Sabres' hopes for serious run at the Stanley Cup this season seemed to be immediately dashed by the confluence of events. Not so, says the man who has one of the best perspectives from which to assess the team in front of him.
"We lost two very talented players -- Briere and Drury were obviously key parts of our team and we learned a lot from them," goaltender Ryan Miller said. "But I don't think they defined the team.
"As much as they were great teammates and very productive players, it wasn't all them. They did a lot for us, but we also did a lot for them. It was a complete team effort and that's kind of what they taught us and preached through their leadership. We're going to do it as a team and it makes sense that we remain that same team."
In other words, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Sabres this season, a sentiment echoed by one of their fiercest rivals.
"They lost a couple of key players, but I looked at their depth," said Ottawa GM Bryan Murray, who coached the Senators last season. "Even at times last year, they fit guys in that were very, very comparable to the players they lost."
"I don't think our style needs to change," said the former Michigan State star. "People are really just speculating on how we're going to react, but let's see how some guys who had great years last year and guys who are promoted fill in before we start jumping to conclusions. We played very well with the core group of guys that we have.
Naturally, emerging young stars like Vanek, Maxim Afinogenov, Jason Pominville and Derek Roy will have to assume greater responsibility, while others like sophomore Drew Stafford, who produced 13 goals and 27 points in 41 games, will be asked to take on bigger roles. And the Sabres get back fleet-footed center Tim Connolly, who missed all but the last two games last year because of a concussion.
Beyond them, the Sabres have a group of solid if unspectacular defenseman and Miller, who has occasional stretches of inconsistency but is often a Vezina-caliber goaltender. The intangible unknown for what is a relatively young team that is still probably the fastest in the league is who will fill the leadership void, something Miller showed signs of doing during last year's playoffs.
"I'm going to try and step up and do as much as I can with the experience I've gained, but leadership is going to have to shake out the way it kind of falls," Miller said. "It's going to be a learning experience in training camp about how things are going to be handled and how we manage it. That should be the only question."