Commentary

The swagger is back for evolving Sabres

Updated: February 5, 2009, 6:04 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Buffalo SabresAP Photo/David DupreyHeading into Thursday's action, the Sabres sit seventh overall in the East.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Darcy Regier's office on the 300 level of HSBC Arena is a modest space, a team picture of the 1999 Eastern Conference-champion Buffalo Sabres the only notable fixture hanging in an otherwise barren room.

We'll wager it's the least glitzy office of any NHL general manager, which is perfect for a man who doesn't seek out praise or the spotlight.

He earned plenty of both in the two seasons that followed the 2004-05 NHL lockout. The Sabres were the poster boys for the league's new rules, a well-built, exciting outfit that played firewagon hockey to reach a pair of Eastern Conference finals.

Fast-forward to today, and we find a Sabres team quietly taking measured steps toward reclaiming some of that swagger after last season's hugely disappointing campaign. Except this time, Buffalo is trying to return to its winning ways with a style of play more suited for an NHL game that has pulled in the reins in its fourth postlockout season.

"The game is always evolving, changing," Regier told ESPN.com in an interview this week. "And so you have to try and stay in front of it and figure out where it's going. I think you're seeing a bigger game coming back."

Regier believes, and we concur, that you're seeing relaxed officiating in the down-low play, such that players can use their sticks a little more freely and get involved more physically in front of the net. That has left just a little less room for the smaller, skilled player.

"And for us, our strength coming out of the lockout, and even up to last season, was our ability to score," Regier said. "I would even argue that the year we finished first overall, whatever issues we were confronted with in the regular season, we would score our way out of them. The game has shifted. Now you're looking at trying to become better defensively."

Coach Lindy Ruff was more blunt: The trap is back.

"Most teams now have four, five guys back," Ruff said. "It's a 1-4 now. They're lining up, a five-man group in the neutral zone."

So the Sabres also felt the need to tighten up. But hey, let's not get carried away here. The Sabres remain a skilled and entertaining team, underlined most recently by a 10-2 drubbing of the Edmonton Oilers. But if there's an overwhelming reason for Buffalo's turnaround, it is that Ruff has finally gotten through to his players about defensive awareness after pounding them with the message since training camp.

"Realizing when you have to lock in defensively really has been the key," Ruff said. "It's about making a higher-percentage play instead of going after the low-percentage offensive play when you've got the lead and you're in the last 10 minutes of a game. I think our team is finally starting to catch on that we don't have to get five or six goals -- we can win games 2-1 or 3-2."

[+] EnlargeLindy Ruff
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarLindy Ruff has been behind the Sabres' bench since July 1997.

The Sabres didn't change their colors overnight. They went through a stretch from Nov. 7 to Dec. 4 when they won only three of 13 games, and it looked as if a repeat of last season's nonplayoff disappointment was in the cards. But as December turned into January, the transformation was at hand. The players have bought in, and the winning results are the proof.

"Defense is winning games right now in this league," Sabres forward Paul Gaustad said. "I think we've committed to that. I think that's part of the turnaround. Guys are buying into the system more than they were."

Captain Craig Rivet, in his first season with the club, remembers watching the Sabres on TV last season and being entertained by their high-scoring affairs.

"It was like, last shot wins," Rivet said. "But we're playing some better defensive hockey this season, and that's going to help us in the long run.

"The good teams in this league know how to score goals, but they also know how to play really solid, stingy defense. That's what I think separates the best from the middle of the row. This is a team that has shown in the past it can score goals. But at the same time, we're continuing as a team to improve defensively, and I think we've made some pretty solid strides."

Again, that doesn't mean the players have forgotten their skill. Anyone who witnessed Drew Stafford's dipsy-doodle dandy against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night was reminded of the offensive magic this squad has. It also doesn't mean there won't be setbacks, the odd relapse into bad habits. But the feeling in and around this organization is that the turnaround has happened.

Buffalo's resurgence has yet to gain much national attention. A 9-4-0 showing in January helped propel the club to seventh in the conference as of Thursday morning, and a win over division rival Montreal on Friday night would pull the Sabres to within just three points of the Habs for second place in the Northeast Division, a seemingly impossible reality just a month ago.

The guy wearing the goalie mask also has had something to do with it. Ryan Miller, the likely starter for Team USA at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, has been outstanding after some early-season struggles.

"Miller has been a lot better, and when your goaltender is a lot better, your record usually shows it," Sabres color analyst Harry Neale said.

This Sabres reincarnation also is about a younger cast of core players accepting their roles.

"The expectations before this season revolved around growth," Regier said. "And the growth that we looked for was largely one of maturation. Whether it was [Thomas] Vanek or [Derek] Roy or [Jason] Pominville, Stafford or Gaustad, up front there's a lot of growth room. We're getting it, and there's more to get."

Vanek has grown comfortable with the pressure of a $50 million, seven-year contract and has found the back of the net about as often as anyone in the league not named Alex Ovechkin. Roy is looking the part of a No. 1 center. Pominville is the reliable two-way winger you can count on in the clutch. Stafford started slowly this season but is finally evolving into the offensive force the Sabres had envisioned. Gaustad is the feisty tower of strength who oozes character.

These aren't your Sabres of 2005-06. There is no Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Brian Campbell, Jay McKee or Mike Grier leading the way. The Sabres have a more youthful group in front of Miller, a group they drafted and developed.

I think the young core in here is a good one, and I think we're making our own identity away from what we were three years ago. We're a hardworking team that can mix in that offensive style.

-- Sabres forward Paul Gaustad

"I think the young core in here is a good one, and I think we're making our own identity away from what we were three years ago," Gaustad said. "We're a hardworking team that can mix in that offensive style. We've changed a little bit, and we've grown from there."

There was bitterness in this market when Drury and Briere both left via free agency in July 2007, a feeling that Regier (or, more precisely, ownership) should have done more to try to keep at least one of them. Campbell was dealt in February 2008 when it was obvious he wouldn't re-sign, while McKee and Grier were the first wave of departures in the summer of 2006. Those players have been tough to replace, and the Briere-Drury double-whammy exit especially set back the Sabres last season.

"It's tough when you keep losing players to unrestricted free agency," Rivet said. "But, I tell ya, Buffalo has done a fantastic job drafting. You look at all these young players in this dressing room, these are all products of this organization and its drafting."

The most recent example of that organizational depth is the way the Sabres have weathered a litany of injuries to their blue line this season, forcing rookie call-ups Mike Weber, Chris Butler and Marc-Andre Gragnani into full-time duty. (The Sabres sent Gragnani back down to the Portland Pirates of the AHL on Wednesday after Teppo Numminen returned from injury.)

"One of the things that you find out when you get injuries like that is that these young guys have shown they can play in this league," Neale said. "Butler especially has been really impressive."

Said Miller: "When you look at the young guys we've had playing on defense, there's tremendous upside on this team. That's the reason I stuck around. I saw the kind of players we had."

Miller agreed to a five-year extension in the summer that will kick in next season. Gaustad, Pominville, Roy, Vanek and Jochen Hecht are signed to long-term deals. The Sabres also hope to lock up Stafford, who's set to become a restricted free agent July 1, while the red-hot Tim Connolly will be an unrestricted free agent.

"You're going to have to make your decisions earlier with this CBA [collective bargaining agreement], and we made a decision to keep our young guys together," Regier said.

But those young guys are being asked to win now. Regier didn't hesitate when we asked him whether making the playoffs this season was a necessity.

"Yes it is," Regier said. "I look at our team, and as important as the playoffs are, the growth of our team is critical. And then we have to figure out how to add to it. The positive for me is that we are growing."

And if the fans were angry after Briere and Drury left, they didn't show it at the turnstiles. The Sabres have a season-ticket base of 15,000, which they needed to cut off, underlining a market that loves the sport and the team even if it lacks the deeper pockets of most other NHL cities.

The summer of 2007 was a bitter pill to swallow in this town. But lift your head up, Sabres fans: All signs point to your team's being on the rise again.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.