2007-08 Team Preview: Buffalo Sabres
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideYes, this was a summer of angst in hockey-mad Buffalo. Co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury departed to the Flyers and Rangers, respectively, and there were serious questions asked about management's efforts to retain these dressing room leaders. Then, the Oilers forced the Sabres to write out a $50 million contract for 23-year-old Thomas Vanek, which won't help the team's bottom line. Finally, popular veteran Teppo Numminen showed up at training camp with heart problems and had successful surgery to repair a faulty valve (he's expected back in about three months). The upheaval might see Buffalo slide from its Presidents' Trophy-worthy 113 points, but the slide won't be as precipitous as many believe. The Sabres didn't react all that well to the high expectations once they got to the postseason this spring, so lower expectations might be welcome for a team that will have to rely on a new crop of youngsters to fill the void left by the departures of Drury and Briere. The big issue is who among the remaining players can step forward and assume the mantle of leadership that previously has been held by Jay McKee, Mike Grier, Drury and Briere. OFFENSE
The Sabres were the NHL's runaway offensive leaders last season with 308 regular-season goals, 20 more than second-place Ottawa. They led the league in five-on-five scoring, a testament to their impressive offensive depth. Of course, 164 points just walked out the door with Drury and Briere, and another 60 from Dainius Zubrus, who is now in New Jersey. That means players such as Drew Stafford and Daniel Paille, rookies a year ago, will have to step forward. Maxim Afinogenov had his breakthrough year sidetracked by an injury but still managed an impressive 61 points in 56 games. He'll need to stay on pace to keep the Sabres near the top of the offensive list. Buffalo would like to see Ales Kotalik, another injury-plagued player, take a step forward. The key could well be Tim Connolly, who has the tools to be an elite scorer but cannot stay out of the infirmary. He had nine assists but no goals in 16 postseason games. Strangely, for all their firepower, the Sabres ranked just 17th on the power play, an area coach Lindy Ruff will want to address this season. DEFENSE
Like a lot of up-tempo teams, the Sabres rely on a collection of smart, puck-moving defensemen to spring their forwards, then jump into the play when the situation calls for it. There might not be a Norris Trophy candidate among the group, but Ruff and GM Darcy Regier have assembled a hardworking bunch that is more than capable at both ends of the ice. Brian Campbell led all blueliners with a career-best 48 points and has emerged as the team's leader along the blue line. He will have to continue to evolve if the Sabres are to remain Cup contenders. Rookie Nathan Paetsch was impressive, with 24 points in 63 regular-season games, and there were questions about why he wasn't used during the playoffs. Numminen's absence might cause Regier to look at free agent Danny Markov. GOALTENDING
Ryan Miller has cemented his place as one of the standard-bearers for the next generation of topflight NHL goaltenders since the lockout. His franchise-record 40 wins last season tied for third behind Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. Miller will have another veteran backstopper as his backup in Jocelyn Thibault, who provided yeomanly service last season in support of another rising goaltending star, Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury. COACHING
There might not be a better coach in the NHL than Ruff. He has shown he can coach tight to the vest or wide open. This, however, will be a new challenge, trying to restore confidence in a team that has undergone significant change and still has Stanley Cup aspirations. Despite the changes, there are no excuses for this team not to make the playoffs for a third straight season. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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• Record: 53-22-7
• Division: First in the Northeast
• Conference: First in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in the conference finals by Ottawa
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Miller, the starter for the Eastern Conference All-Stars last season, has shown surprising maturity, which will come in handy for a team that might endure some bumps along the way this season. Defenseman: Jaroslav Spacek
The veteran Czech defender had a disappointing campaign with just 21 regular-season points and none in the postseason. With Numminen out for about three months, Spacek will need to do better. Forward: Clarke MacArthur
The Sabres' third-round pick in 2003, MacArthur led the AHL Rochester Americans in scoring with 63 points in 51 games last season. He added seven more in 19 games with the big club.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
Management flipped its lid when Oilers GM Kevin Lowe tried to snatch Vanek with an offer sheet. That followed what was a not particularly adept handling of the Drury and Briere situations. Then, the team opted to suspend Numminen, a business decision, yet one that smacked of callousness. In short, the love affair between rabid Sabres fans and the team might be on the wane if the team gets off to a rocky start. Where Sabres Will Finish
The Sabres will finish second in the Northeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Buffalo Sabres will finish this time around? Who will lead the Sabres in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!