Sabres move on after exceedingly busy summer

By Thomas Baldwin
SportsTicker Staff Writer

BUFFALO, New York (Ticker) - Western New York residents and Buffalo Sabres management felt euphoric in the spring, when the club embarked on a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals.

Picked by many experts to finish near or at the bottom of the conference, Buffalo defeated Philadelphia and surprised Ottawa before losing to eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina in a hard-fought, seven-game series.

However, the cheerful atmosphere failed to last long as reality set in - very hard, in fact.

Perhaps no club had a busier offseason than the Sabres, who had 12 players file for arbitration, meaning general manager Darcy Regier had some arduous decisions to make.

When the arbitration process finally was completed, the club’s financial landscape differed drastically from last season. The Sabres had two players make $2 million or more in 2005-06. In the upcoming campaign, they have 11.

Despite the monetary changes off the ice, left wing Thomas Vanek believes things on the ice will be relatively stable.

“This group is similar to our team from last season,” said Vanek, an Austrian who was drafted fifth overall in 2003. “We have lots of young players that give us good speed. We feature a couple of good defensemen and we have the greatest goaltenders in the league.”

Buffalo’s biggest offseason priority was signing netminder Ryan Miller, who had a breakout season in 2005-06, going 30-14-3 with one shutout, a 2.60 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage as a rookie.

Miller, who signed a three-year, $8 million deal, clearly established himself as Buffalo’s No. 1 goalie, eradicating a long period of uncertainty since Dominik Hasek left for Detroit in 2001.

“If you want to look at the backbone of our team, you have to look at your goaltenders,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “For Ryan to be in camp and focused is important for our team. We need our goaltenders ready. We need Ryan ready.”

Buffalo also re-signed Martin Biron, who will serve as Miller’s backup. Last season, he proved he is more than capable of being a starter, embarking on a franchise-record 13-game unbeaten streak when Miller was out with a broken thumb.

Biron inked a one-year, $2.128 million deal, which raises questions. Is Buffalo content to pay a backup that much? Or are they patiently waiting for the right deal to come around so they can trade him?

Also back in the fold are right wing Maxim Afinogenov and center Daniel Briere.

Afinogenov was signed to a three-year contract worth $10 million. The speedy Russian led the Sabres in scoring, registering 22 goals and 51 assists for 73 points. Briere, the team’s co-captain, went to arbitration and was awarded a one-year, $5 million deal.

Despite retaining the services of those players, not all the news was rosy for the Sabres.

Buffalo lost defenseman Jay McKee, a shot-blocker extraordinaire who signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the St. Louis Blues on July 1. Then, right wing J.P. Dumont was shown the door.

McKee priced himself out of Buffalo’s salary range. Dumont was affordable but deemed expendable, and Regier walked away from his one-year, $2.9 million arbitration award.

The speedy and popular Dumont eventually signed with the Nashville Predators for $4.5 million over two years.

Another departee was right wing Mike Grier, one of the character players who was an integral part of Buffalo’s success last postseason. A physical presence, the 6-1, 220-pound Grier signed with the San Jose Sharks over the summer.

“We did lose some players, but this team and this organization has depth,” Ruff said. “I like our speed. I think we will be fine.”

To compensate for the loss of McKee, the Sabres inked free agent defenseman Jaroslav Spacek to a three-year deal worth $10 million. In 76 games with Chicago and Edmonton last season, Spacek recorded 12 goals and 31 assists.

“Yeah, it hurts,” defenseman Brian Campbell said of losing the trio of veterans. “But we brought in another veteran defenseman in Spacek to offset the loss of Jay McKee. (Spacek) plays a different style, so we’ll have to see how it works out.

“Losing Mike and J.P. up front has forced other guys to step up. I’m impressed with (Jiri) Novotny, but there are lots of bodies up front that can fill that role.”

Miller also was impressed with the addition of Spacek, a fifth-round pick of Florida in 1998.

“I’m excited to have someone of his skill in here,” Miller said. “This team thrives a lot on character and chemistry, and he seems to be the kind of guy that’s going to fit in, and he’s got great skill.”

A huge question mark surrounds the availability of center Tim Connolly, who again is experiencing post-concussion symptoms. Connolly was leveled by Ottawa’s Peter Schaefer in the conference semifinals and missed the beginning of training camp.

Buffalo was confident enough in Connolly’s health to sign him to a three-year, $8.7 million contract this summer.

The overall health of the franchise, which was shaky a few years ago when the club declared bankruptcy after the Rigas ownership fiasco, appears to be strong under owner Tom Golisano. The Sabres launched an aggressive campaign to attract season ticketholders over the summer, and sales reportedly were brisk.

Buffalo also will don new uniforms with navy blue and gold as the primary colors. But no matter what colors they wear, the Sabres - who took giant strides last season - want to go a step further this campaign.

“We got a little taste of it, but we didn’t get to swallow the whole thing,” Briere said. “We know we have the assets here to get the job done, and we have the confidence because we did it last year.”

Despite a majority of players getting substantially bigger paychecks this season, Miller thinks the team will remain focused.

“Anytime you lose the last game of the year, that’s something sour that sticks with you, especially when it’s a game away from something you dreamed about playing for,” he said. “And I guess I can say this team, in its history, has never won a Cup, so there is a lot of unfinished business.”


Follow Yahoo! Sports' NHL coverage on Twitter.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 27, 2006