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By Pierre LeBrun
The Buffalo Sabres came out of the lockout as the new flavor of the new NHL, a freewheeling outfit that was fun to watch and embraced the new way the game was being played.
But free-agent defections and the return of more defensive-minded hockey around the league combined to ground the Sabres' ascent. Missing the playoffs for two straight seasons has Sabres fans clamoring for results.
Fact is, the Sabres were comfortably in a playoff spot last season when long-term injuries to star goalie Ryan Miller and top goal scorer Thomas Vanek killed them. Surely, they can't be unlucky enough to suffer those types of key injuries again.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Sabres this season:
1. Quiet offseason
Despite two straight seasons out of the playoffs, Sabres GM Darcy Regier was largely quiet in the offseason; winger Mike Grier and defenseman Steve Montador were the only notable additions.
"We lost Ales Kotalik, we lost [Maxim] Afinogenov; probably the place where we're going to have to answer to critics is going to be on the back end with the loss of Jaroslav Spacek," Regier told ESPN.com. "He had a terrific year for us, 45 points. We're going to have to look inside."
Regier's reluctance to make major moves speaks to two things: There isn't a lot of money to go around to start outbidding other NHL clubs on July 1, and there's a belief in the Sabres' front office that simply staying healthy and getting self-improvement from core players should be enough to get them into the playoffs.
"I don't think we were looking for major changes," Sabres captain Craig Rivet told ESPN.com. "We feel we have the personnel in our dressing room to have success and to make the playoffs. You look last year when we lost Miller for six weeks and Vanek for a month and Tim Connolly for 30 games or so, if we can keep our top guys healthy, we feel pretty confident about things."
2. Welcome back, Mr. Grier
The Sabres brought back Grier, a popular player during his first go-around with the Sabres (part of the 2003-04 campaign and the 2005-06 season before spending the past three seasons in San Jose).
"In Mike Grier, we were really just looking more for somebody who could contribute inside the room and be very responsible defensively," Regier said.
Interestingly, however, it's the second year in a row the Sabres have brought in a veteran presence for leadership reasons. The team acquired Rivet before last season slapped the "C" on the newcomer. Some would interpret that move as a message to the rest of the team that more leadership needed to be shown.
"We have a young team that's all been brought up together," Rivet said. "They're a very tight-knit group. Sometimes you need outside influence, guys that have been around; that's who you learn from. Bringing in guys like myself and Mike that have been around, it's only going to help these guys mature as hockey players and as people. That's what I try to bring here. I try to help them with their downtimes."
3. Dangerous Derek
Buffalo's No. 1 center, Derek Roy, may have raised some eyebrows when he was invited to Canada's Olympic orientation camp. Perhaps the 26-year-old no longer will fly under the radar. He followed up a career-best 81 points (32 goals-49 assists) in 2007-08 with 70 points (28-42) last season, again leading the Sabres in scoring.
4. Miller time
Miller's six-week absence last season was sorely missed. He's among the NHL's top netminders and needs a healthy season for the Sabres to succeed.
"Millsy is one of the best goaltenders in the league, and we're extremely excited to have him," Rivet said. "He's a true professional. He prepares for every game like it's his last game. I think that brings a lot to our room. When he goes down, it's a big hole to fill, and unfortunately last year we weren't able to overcome that."
5. The core needs to step up
There's a belief around the Sabres that this is the season that core players such as Roy, Vanek, Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, Clarke MacArthur and Daniel Paille need to prove the front office was correct in building this team around them.
"We've got some highly talented players, some guys with major upside that have already had success in the game. These guys want to have a solid season," Rivet said. "There's a lot of guys that are looking to take the next step."
6. Counting on Connolly
Connolly has enough talent to make your head spin. Since the lockout, the shifty center has 153 points (42-111) in 161 games. Problem is, he's missed 167 games during that span. If this guy could ever stay healthy, the sky's the limit. When Connolly is in the lineup, he gives the Sabres two dangerous scoring lines with Roy centering the other unit. When Connolly is out, the Sabres revert essentially to being a one-line team, making them much easier to stop. Connolly had 47 points (18-29) in 48 games last season and finished strong enough for Regier to have enough faith to reward him with a two-year, $9 million contract extension. Now's the time to pay back the Sabres.
7. Getting defensive
Coach Lindy Ruff spent much of the first half of last season pounding his players with his desire to play better defensive hockey. He wanted his players to better protect the puck and eliminate the kind of riverboat gambling he believed his team was guilty of too often in 2007-08. The result was encouraging, although the team is still a work in progress. Buffalo ranked 14th in the NHL in goals against last season at 2.79, an improvement over the 2.84 mark of 2007-08, when the Sabres ranked 22nd in the league. Still, they can tighten up further.
8. The heat is on
Regier enters his 13th year as GM of the Sabres and perhaps never has felt more under the gun. It is difficult for the Buffalo market to digest two straight seasons without a postseason berth after back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
"We definitely feel pressure to get the team back into the playoffs," Regier said. "I've been around long enough to know there are some things you can work hard and control, and there's some you can't. You don't worry on the things you can't control. But yes, the pressure is there to make the playoffs."
9. Olympic exposure
The Sabres could have a half-dozen players at the Vancouver Games in Miller (USA), Roy (Canada), Toni Lydman (Finland), Henrik Tallinder (Sweden), Andrej Sekera (Slovakia) and Jochen Hecht (Germany). Miller is a lock for Team USA, while Roy is a long shot for Team Canada.
10. A scheduling note
If the Sabres are life-and-death to make the playoffs in the final two weeks of the regular season, they won't get any help from their April schedule. Buffalo plays five of its six April games on the road with stops in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Ottawa and New Jersey.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 41-32-9
• Division: Third in the Northeast
• Conference: 10th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• We're a little higher on the Sabres than most and believe the team will finish second in the Northeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference thanks to healthy campaigns from Miller, Vanek and Connolly.
• Lindy Ruff enters his 13th season behind the Sabres' bench as the longest-tenured coach in the NHL.
Some Sabres fans believe change is overdue, but Steve Yzerman and the Team Canada brain trust showed what they thought of Ruff in naming him an associate coach on the 2010 Olympic staff.
He's one of the best coaches in the NHL, but his challenge again this season will be to get his talented forwards to buy into two-way hockey.
F -- Jason Pominville
• Dipped to 66 points last season after a career-high 80 points the previous campaign.
F -- Tim Connolly
• The man is a point-per-game machine -- when healthy.
F -- Thomas Vanek
• Was challenging for the Maurice Richard Trophy last season before getting hurt.
D -- Chris Butler
• Second-year NHLer emerged late last season as one of Buffalo's top defensemen.
D -- Craig Rivet
• The veteran, physical defenseman will feel more comfortable with the "C" on this season in his second year with the team.
Best Bet: Thomas Vanek, F: Vanek managed to get his 40 goals last season, but fell in the assist department for the second consecutive season. He is a strong fantasy performer in goals and power-play goals, but his other statistics are empty. Vanek doesn't even shoot very often for such a scorer. The Sabres don't look like they are improving this season; so expect more of the same from Vanek.
Risky Move: Drew Stafford, F: Stafford continues to make modest strides in his game, and while we anticipate he'll take another one this season, it won't be a significant one. With a role solidified now in Buffalo's top six, Stafford should be able to ply off 55 points. Until the team makes some upgrades on defense, though, Stafford should only be considered for a role in one of your final forward slots.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Buffalo Sabres finish this season in Northeast Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.