Buffalo Sabres season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:30 PM ET
ESPN.com

Buffalo Sabres

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Buffalo GM Darcy Regier spent this summer paying for his solid strategy a year ago, when he signed most players to short-term deals out of the lockout. The plethora of contracts Regier had to negotiate, coupled with the Sabres' surprising run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals, meant Regier's budget was shot from the beginning. Daniel Briere hit the jackpot with a one-year, $5-million arbitration award. J.P. Dumont's $2.9-million award was too rich for the Sabres, who walked away whereupon Dumont signed for less money in Nashville. Mike Grier and Jay McKee, both pivotal members of the Sabres' tight-knit squad, also departed for San Jose and St. Louis, respectively. Regier did bring in Jaroslav Spacek to fill McKee's place, but the bottom line is that the surprising Sabres will be hard-pressed to replicate their regular season or playoff success.

Offense: How the Sabres managed to score 276 goals (tied with Atlanta for third-most in the conference) and have the third-best power play in the NHL and yet could not manage to have a scorer in the top 40 remains an illusion that would inspire David Copperfield. In spite of injuries that kept both Dumont and Briere out of the lineup for a total of 62 games, the Sabres rolled out four productive lines night after night. Employing a speedy, pressure game, the Sabres flirted with the conference and division leads, finished just three points back of Ottawa and compiled the best road record in the conference. Briere (58 points in 48 games) was dynamic once he returned and has the potential to put up 100 points if he can stay healthy. Maxim Afinogenov led the team in scoring with 73 points and put questions about whether he was ever going to capitalize on his potential behind him. Chris Drury has the perfect leadership style and personality for this team -- understated but highly effective. The fact Tim Connolly still appears to be suffering form post-concussion symptoms that kept him out the last half of the playoffs is troubling. He chipped in 11 points in the Sabres' first eight postseason games and has point-a-game potential. If Connolly is out for an extended period of time, Tomas Vanek, a rookie who spent some time in Ruff's doghouse last season, and Derek Roy have lots to give.

Defense: The Sabres finished 10th overall and first in the conference on the penalty kill, and there's enough depth along the blue line to suggest they should maintain that position this season. Yes, they'll miss McKee, who chased big dollars to St. Louis after leading the league in blocked shots. But Spacek will eat up tons of minutes and add more offense than McKee would have. The Sabres were the third-best road team in the NHL, a testament to their discipline and commitment to Ruff's system. Although the Sabres were excoriated last summer for not making so-called significant moves, one of the best was the acquisition of Toni Lydman from Calgary  he led all Sabres defensemen in ice-time and was a rock during playoff wins over Philadelphia and Ottawa. Dmitri Kalinin, Henrik Tallinder and Brian Campbell all took strides forward and will return.

Goaltending: The move the Sabres didn't make, dealing Martin Biron, might have been the move that saved their season. When Ryan Miller went down with a broken thumb early in the season, Biron reeled off 13 straight victories to keep the Sabres flying. But everyone knows the future of the team's goaltending lies with the unflappable Miller, whose broken thumb cost him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team (and likely cost the U.S. a medal, but we digress). The rookie went 30-14-3 in the regular season and then was terrific in the postseason (11-7). His ability to shake off bad goals or outings shows the maturity of a much more experienced netminder. His numbers should only get better this season.

Coaching: Lindy Ruff was full value for his selection as a Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year. Ruff spent most of the lockout season with the Sabres' AHL team in Rochester, helping implement a game plan that would see a seamless transition from the minors to the NHL. It worked perfectly as the Sabres never lost their cool even when faced with potentially crippling injuries every step of the way. The challenge for Ruff will be in reproducing that special feeling in the Sabres dressing room, not easy when a team has tasted success. Does the loss of assistant coach Scott Arniel, now the head man in Winnipeg (AHL), hurt the team's potent power play?

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
5th There's bound to be a bit of a drop-off for the Sabres, but not a big one. They'll drop to third in the Northeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. This is a team that's gone from bankruptcy and irrelevance to the hottest ticket in town. By the end of the playoffs, the city was alive in an unprecedented fashion and the HSBC Arena an absolutely rockin' place.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
The Sabres' balanced approach led to a remarkable season in the standings and postseason, albeit with only a handful of true fantasy stars. "Goalie of the future" Ryan Miller finally arrived and it's his team now. Even with Martin Biron in town, don't fret, Miller is not losing his job. He's a top-10 caliber fantasy pick. Daniel Briere and Chris Drury are solid, but not elite forwards. Newly acquired defenseman Jaroslav Spacek should be a nice mid-level pick as long as he is in the power-play picture. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Sabres:
1. Drew Strafford, 20, RW, North Dakota (WCHA)
Statline: 41 GP, 24 G, 23 A, 63 PIM
2. Marek Zagrapan, 19, C, Chicoutimi (QMJHL)
Statline: 59 GP, 35 G, 52 A, 63 PIM
3. Andrej Sekera, 20, D, Owen Sound (OHL)
Statline: 51 GP, 21 G, 34 A, 54 PIM
4. Dan Paille, 22, LW, Rochester (AHL)
Statline: 45 GP, 14 G, 13 A, 29 PIM
5. Philip Gogulla, 19, RW, Cologne (Germany)
Statline: 48 GP, 7 G, 15 A, 49 PIM
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Buffalo Sabres
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record52-24-6 (110 points)
DivisionFinished second in Northeast
ConferenceFinished fourth in East
PlayoffsLost 4-2 to Carolina in East finals

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Daniel Briere
Big contract, big expectations but big-time talent, too. Now, if he can just stay healthy.
Winger: Jason Pominville
The unassuming rookie led all first-year scorers in the playoffs with five goals and 10 points. Now, we'll get a chance to see if that was a flash in the pan. His 18 goals in 57 regular-season games suggest it wasn't.
Defense: Henrik Tallinder
Most point to the loss of McKee prior to Game 7 against Carolina as the difference, but it might well have been the loss of Tallinder to a broken arm in Game 3 of the conference finals that ultimately cost the Sabres a trip to the finals. The 6-foot-3 defender's got game.
Goalie: Ryan Miller
What does the sensational rookie do for an encore? Or rather, how does he live up to now significant expectations?

Key Moves
Bringing in the underappreciated Spacek, who was terrific for Edmonton in their run to the finals, more than offsets the loss of McKee. The loss of Mike Grier will be felt more in the dressing room than on the score sheet.

SportsNation
Rating the Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres finished fourth in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Sabres in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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