In Buffalo, it's Miller time

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! Sports

The Sabres came sprinting out of the lockout as if they had a better understanding of how the New NHL would work than almost anyone else. Buffalo used speed and skill to frustrate a lot of Eastern opponents, and the Sabres found themselves in the conference finals in consecutive seasons. Who knows? If not for some untimely injuries or a break here and there, Buffalo could have won a Stanley Cup or two in the last three years.

But the identity of the team changed last offseason when the 1-2 punch at center in Daniel Briere and Chris Drury departed for greener pastures, and the team felt forced to trade All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell when it appeared contract negotiations were headed for the same dead end as the recent ex-co-captains.

Buffalo fans are tired of hearing about it, but departures were not adequately replaced and the Sabres not only paid for it with a non-playoff season in the spring but also a questionable outlook for 2008-09.

In an attempt to show its fans and team that Buffalo could and would commit to a young star for the long haul, the club shelled out $25 million for a five-year extension on goalie Ryan Miller's deal that had one season remaining.

Miller didn't have a spectacular season – 2.64 goals-against average, .906 save percentage – but at age 27 the Michigan State product is viewed as just coming into his prime, and he was a workhorse last year, playing 76 games (including 34 straight after Jan. 21).

His popularity in the Buffalo area, too, represents a personality – the face of the franchise, if you will – the Sabres just couldn't risk losing after the season. Miller should get more opportunity to catch his breath this year, too, because the Sabres signed free-agent veteran Patrick Lalime.

So it is with that building block in place that Buffalo tries to wipe clean the slate of controversial negotiations in an attempt to remove that distraction from getting in the way of forward progress.

In addition, it may help to mend some of the ill feelings the very loyal and enthusiastic fan base built up while watching one star after another depart. It's another reason the franchise is reaching out a bit by inviting the public to the team's first day of camp on Sept. 20, where besides the Sabres modeling their new third jersey they will be available for a full team autograph session afterward and a day-long adult street hockey festival will take place outside the arena.

Mending relationships is one thing, yet finding the talent to keep pace with the ever-changing shift of balance in the conference, however, is another matter.

Last season: 39-31-12, 90 points, fourth place Northeast Division, 10th in the Eastern Conference. Missed the postseason for the first time in three years after reaching the conference finals the previous two springs.

Imports: D Craig Rivet (2007-08 team: San Jose Sharks), G Patrick Lalime (Chicago Blackhawks), LW Mathieu Darche (Tampa Bay Lightning), LW Tyler Bouck (minors), LW Jimmy Bonneau (Montreal Canadiens).

Exports: RW Steve Bernier (Vancouver Canucks), D Dmitri Kalinin (New York Rangers).

Three keys to the season: Adding Craig Rivet was a nice touch, but the Buffalo defense on ice had better look a lot better than it does on paper. Jaroslav Spacek, Henrik Tallinder, Tony Lydman, Nathan Paetsch, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber, Rivet and maybe Teppo Numminen. Does anyone see a No. 1 defenseman here? Or an opponent top-line stopper candidate? The Sabres only can play the way Lindy Ruff wants if the defense is strong and accountable.

Second, Tim Connolly's health will dictate a lot up front again. It seems to be a question every season. He appeared in only 48 games last season, and he has a hip that's less than 100 percent. The names at forward are like those on defense, all decent players. And yes, the Sabres are quick and scored goals at a good clip last season, but is there enough top-end talent to enable Buffalo to compete with the likes of Pittsburgh, Washington, Montreal, Ottawa, etc.?

And last, Ruff rotated the captaincy around the room from month-to-month, but it's time to designate and assign more full-time leadership. Rivet was shocked by his trade from San Jose, a place he enjoyed playing. As long as he has his head on straight, it wouldn't be the worst move to allow a relative outsider to take the reins of the room. There really aren't a lot of obvious candidates among the players with tenure. Jochen Hecht? Derek Roy? Jason Pominville? You see our point. Rivet brings the accountability, respect and the know-how to give the team a new, strong voice.

On the hot seat: Ruff is the active coaching leader in terms of tenure with the same team as he heads behind the Sabres' bench for a 12th consecutive season. He's a good hockey man, smart, experienced and well-liked in the community. But a second straight non-playoff campaign probably would signal the time for change, regardless of how many holes the Buffalo lineup appears to present.

Poised to blossom: A bit of a flier here as Slovakia native Sekera just might be at the right place at the right time to seize an opportunity and make the most of it. Sekera got a look-see last spring when Campbell was traded. At age 22, the 6-foot-1, 191-pound defenseman blends a finesse games with smarts and is not afraid to initiate contact. He's a strong skater and a solid passer. He's exactly the kind of defenseman Ruff wants in his system.

Analysis and prediction: Buffalo seems to do more with less better than anyone, but we just don't see that trend continuing with the way the young teams in the East are improving combined with the fact the Sabres have had more talent going out the door than coming in it. It appears to be a non-playoff season and a battle with Toronto to stay out of the division cellar.

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