Tuesday, July 20, 2004
Updated: July 21, 3:26 AM ET
Can Sabres find the right mix?
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
Here's a pop quiz: Which NHL team had one of the best records in the second half last season? Here's a hint, not too long ago they had a second home in bankruptcy court.
No, not the Ottawa Senators. It was the Buffalo Sabres.
If the Sabres' strong second half, in which they were seven games over .500, is a surprise to the casual observer, perhaps equally surprising is the fact the Sabres missed the playoffs by six points in large part because of their defensive failings. The normally stingy Sabres finished 10th in NHL scoring with 220 goals, but tied for 22nd in goals allowed with 21, the most they've surrendered since 1995-96.
The identity crisis -- as well as the team's third straight finish out of the playoffs -- was due in part to a significant change in team chemistry and personnel during the past several seasons.
After adding Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to complement streaky scorer J.P. Dumont and Jochen Hecht, the Sabres were without perennial scoring leader Miroslav Satan for most of training camp as he held out before landing a whopper (by Sabres standards), two-year, $10 million contract. Predictably, Satan sputtered through much of the season, recording just 57 points, his lowest total since 1997-98. Coach Lindy Ruff at one point had Satan skating on the fourth line, while rumors the Sabres were anxious to deal their enigmatic star at the deadline swirled. Those rumors proved unfounded.
The Sabres' goaltending was also in a state of flux, as the tandem of Mika Noronen and Martin Biron failed to deliver through the first half of the season. Even when Biron became the undisputed No. 1 netminder during the second half of the season, the Sabres still finished a disappointing 23rd in GAA.
Not surprisingly, the cost-conscious Sabres have been quiet this offseason, although longtime defender Alex Zhitnik, an unrestricted free agent, could still end up back in a Sabres uniform. Beyond that, the same core will be charged with ending the team's playoff drought.
The team also announced a dramatic cut to the price of season tickets, leaving the Sabres with the most inexpensive ducats, on average, in the league.
General manager Darcy Regier spoke this week with ESPN.com about last season's up-and-down campaign and the effort to capitalize on a strong second half.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
We did feel that way, that we were a playoff team. But we also had some things we didn't know about. Any time you make a number of changes, it's going to take a certain amount of time for things to settle in, for the chemistry to come together. The first half of the season was kind of up and down. The break-off point was probably the end of a seven-game losing streak. It was around January 1st. We were one team going into the streak and one team coming out of the losing streak. Whether it was chemistry, or leadership, something came together from that point to the end of the year.
In the second half, I think what came from that point was a decision to go with certain people. The most important decision was to ride Biron and just say, "Marty, you're the guy." His play improved when we did that; it really helped his confidence. And Mika supported him well, and I think our defense stabilized in some ways, too. We'd tried different things back there in the first half, and we finally settled on certain guys there, too.
The other thing that happened down the stretch was the acquisitions of Mike Grier and Brad Brown. By themselves maybe they don't stand out. But they brought some needed experience, grit. Those two guys really contributed as well.
We feel we can carry that into this season and we have to do that. Our one focus during the offseason is that we have to make sure that we get out of the gates well.
Regier: It probably started with some questions as to how the team would come together, because we made a number of changes a year or so ago. Daniel Briere and Chris Drury were still relatively new to the team. Those were the two biggest changes and we didn't know how that would work. And our goaltending was still relatively young, and you know in the National Hockey League that's an important factor and there was a question there.
ESPN.com: Which player made the biggest strides in your estimation, had the greatest impact?
On the back end, Dmitri Kalinin. He's a talented young man. Jay McKee came back from an injury and played well, and Henrik Tallinder is a lot like Kalinin, with a really good upside.
Regier: I really think there are a number of players. We were 16-20-4-1 and we're four games under .500, and then we went seven games over in the second half. More than anything, it was about the team. Things came together. If I was to look at the forwards, there was one line, Hecht, Drury, Grier and then Dumont, Briere and Satan. Derek Roy came up, too. Derek Roy is going to be a very good NHL player. He's got his rookie year behind him. There was a lot of chemistry. The work ethic was very strong. Drury is a leader, and Danny Briere has shown he is a leader. I would say those players picked up the slack.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there's hockey this fall?
Regier: I think if you look at some of our veterans, Miro Satan is someone that, if you asked him, he would have been disappointed in his point production and his offensive contributions. I think he's someone who's capable of a lot more production. I think we expect him to bounce back.
ESPN.com: Who is your top player in your system ready to play in the NHL right now?
Regier: There's probably just one player who's got a shot at it, Tomas Vanek out of the University of Minnesota. If he's signed, he would be someone at training camp that would have a chance to make our team. He came over here from Vienna as a 14-year-old to play in Red Deer, Alberta, to pursue his dreams of playing in the NHL. He has so far been fulfilling his dreams. He's an interesting kid.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Regier: It's more of a defensive improvement. We can be better. It's something Lindy and I have spent a lot of time on, and we're still working on it. We've always been good defensively. Last season, we finished 10th offensively, but you've got to improve the goal differential. Two hundred and twenty goals, that's offensively a step in the right direction, but we flip-flopped last year where we weren't as good defensively. The goal is to stay where we are offensively and work on the defense.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Regier: I think it was the tie after the seven-game losing streak. I don't think I've ever been so excited about a tie. It's funny, when you're on a winning streak, you feel invincible. But when you're on a losing streak, you feel like you'll never win again. That was one of those.
Regier: The longer you're in the business, the least favorite moment is just losing, the frustration of losing. I don't know what it is. I think the longer you're in the business, the pain seems to get worse. I would say it gets worse. I don't know why. Of course, you look at that seven-game losing streak and that was painful. And then we were three points back with two games against the Islanders and we lost both games, and that was a point, in some ways, that was a critical point. But there are always games you lost you feel you should have won, and probably games you won that you should have lost.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from the game this offseason?
ESPN.com: Maybe you could start taking pictures for the Sabres' publications, save some money for the organization?
Regier: No, no vacation. In fact, my wife and I had that conversation this morning. My hobby is I'm an amateur shutter bug. I like taking pictures, pictures of my family, of people, of flowers and nature. It came from the advent of digital photography, otherwise I wouldn't have the time for it.
Regier: Oh, don't mention that. We do enough cost-cutting without me doing the pictures. The key word in this is the "amateur" part of it.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.