The Buffalo Sabres’ biggest priority coming into this season is finding ways to replace the scoring production of the departed Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. An injury to Ales Kotalik won’t help that cause.
The Sabres begin life without their top two centers from 2006-07, and also look to overcome Kotalik’s absence when they open the season with a home-and-home series against the New York Islanders, starting at HSBC Arena on Friday.
The Sabres (53-22-7) scored an NHL-best 282 goals and set franchise records for wins and points (113) en route to capturing the Presidents’ Trophy, but their season ended in the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight year.
Briere and Drury combined for 164 points in 2006-07, but both departed via free agency during the offseason, Briere signing with Philadelphia and Drury with the New York Rangers. Buffalo is counting on the 28-year-old Kotalik, who had 16 goals and 22 assists in 66 games last season, to increase his production and help fill that scoring void this season.
Kotalik, though, is experiencing pain in his knee and has not been cleared to skate.
“It doesn’t look good for playing in the opener or this opening weekend, but I wouldn’t project past that of him missing any more games,” coach Lindy Ruff said.
While the Sabres need Kotalik’s offensive abilities, they may still be able to produce enough goals to remain a top team in the Eastern Conference. Center Tim Connolly, a former Islander, missed all but two games last season due to injury but returned for the playoffs and contributed nine assists in 16 games.
Buffalo expects second-year players Drew Stafford and Daniel Paille to continue their development and support a still-deep corps of forwards that includes Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht and Maxim Afinogenov. Hecht has become the new captain, replacing Briere and Drury, who shared the title.
The Sabres will be looking to extend their dominance over the Islanders, whom they eliminated in five games in the first round of last season’s playoffs. Buffalo is 7-1 in eight meetings with New York over the previous two regular seasons, taking all four matchups at HSBC Arena.
Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller is 5-1-0 with a 2.85 goals-against average in six games against the Islanders since the start of the 2005-06 season.
The Sabres will be without veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen for about three months after he underwent heart surgery Sept. 20 to repair a faulty valve.
An improbable surge put the Islanders (40-30-12) in the playoffs for the third time in four seasons in 2006-07, as they won their final four games to reach the postseason. New York has failed to make it out of the first round each time in that span, though, and began an overhaul of its lineup following the loss to Buffalo.
The Islanders bought out the contract of disappointing captain Alexei Yashin. The team failed to re-sign forward Ryan Smyth, who it acquired in a trade deadline deal with Edmonton, and also lost forwards Jason Blake and Viktor Kozlov as well as defenseman Tom Poti.
The biggest factor in the Islanders’ success may be the health of Rick DiPietro, who enters the second year of a 15-year, $67.5 million contract. The goaltender missed nine of the Islanders’ last 13 games because of post-concussion syndrome, although he returned for the final four playoff games. DiPietro is 5-5-1 with a 2.47 GAA in 12 appearances against Buffalo.
He seemed to have no worries about the injury during the preseason, even engaging in a fight with Rangers goalie Al Montoya.
The Islanders will be counting on DiPietro to be at his best as they try to improve their play defensively. They allowed 235 goals last season, only 19th best in the league.
“There is no question we’ve been focusing on the defense right from the get-go,” current Islanders and former Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “From the first day of training camp, we emphasized our coverage of the defensive zone.”
The Sabres have won 20 of their 36 season openers, including 14 of 22 at home. The Islanders have lost four straight openers and have won only eight in the franchise’s 34-season history.
The home-and-home set concludes Saturday at Nassau Coliseum.