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October 6, 2011 - Matt Spielman
The Sabres open their 41st season Friday and with high hopes of Terry Pegula's ownership comes high expectations.
No longer can the franchise hide behind excuses as it has in the past. As long as fans can remember, the team has had something or someone to blame for not winning the Stanley Cup.
First it was the Ted Nolan-Dominik Hasek feud in the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs that resulted in John Muckler's firing, Ted Nolan's low-ball offer and consequently the hiring of Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff.
In 1999, the NHL gave the Sabres franchise something to really complain about with the famous "No Goal" Brett Hull skate-in-the-crease game-winning tally in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
In 2000-01, Buffalo fans blamed it all on the organization's handling of the Michael Peca contract situation while in 2006 it was injuries to Henrik Tallinder and Jay McKee that cost the Sabres the Cup. It was Ryan Miller's fault for going to the Olympics in 2010 and playing too much and last year Tom Golisano was the devil and everything bad that happened to the team was his fault.
Well, all of that is over now — it is a new season and a new era.
Miller is fresh and has a star-studded defense corps in front of him. Robyn Regehr is the bruising take-no-garbage-from-anybody enforcer that the Sabres have been lacking on the back end since McKee left several years ago. Pegula opened up his checkbook as promised and let Regier sign the top free-agent blue-liner available in 29-year-old Christian Ehrhoff who has shown great shooting and skating ability during the preseason and should be a real asset on the power play. Tyler Myers was locked into a long-term deal that will keep him in the blue and gold for the next eight years, well into the prime of his already budding career. Those three teamed with Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani should put the Sabres defense group right up there with any top seven in the league.
Up front, the Sabres have a core of forwards that has been building to this point in their careers for the past several years. Ever since the lockout, the group of Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, Jason Pominville and company has been building to this point. Being able to reach their primes together, on the same team, is something not many players get to do in this day and age when trades, free agency and salary-cap casualties are taking the league by storm. Roy was experiencing a career year until a freak leg injury ended his season in 2010-11. Pominville, who was named captain at a team dinner Thursday, had his 2010-11 season derailed early on by a head injury and it took him a while to shake the cobwebs before regaining his touch down the stretch. He will be counted on to play the power play, kill penalties and play plenty of 5-on-5 minutes. Vanek and Stafford will be counted on to score at least 30 — and as many as 40 — goals apiece, while Gaustad's faceoff and penalty-killing ability will go a long way to filling his very important role on the team.
While all teams are pretty comparable across their top-six forwards, where teams can start to create some separation is with their depth, and Buffalo will have to do that with its free-agent signings and youth this season. Tyler Ennis will be counted on to eclipse 25 goals, while Nathan Gerbe will not sneak up on anybody this year. Ville Leino, the Sabres top money grab up front in the offseason, should be a big contributor due to his puck possession skills, which he showcased against Buffalo in the first round for the Flyers last year.
Jochen Hecht remains a question mark at this point due to a lingering injury that kept him out of the final preseason game, and Luke Adam, the team's top prospect, has filled in his spot in the lineup. Patrick Kaleta and Cody McCormick will again add grit to the lineup while Brad Boyes is the wild card. If motivated, the 29-year-old forward could provide quite a scoring spark due to his pending free agency and past history of scoring 40 goals. If Boyes does that, it would provide the Sabres with depth they haven't seen since the 2006-07 team reached the conference finals.
Four decades after the Knox brothers brought an NHL franchise to Buffalo, Sabres fans are hoping 60-year-old Terry Pegula can do what 20- and 30-year-olds Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert, Rick Martin, Danny Gare, Dominik Hasek, Michael Peca, Pat Lafontaine and hundreds of other Sabres that came before and after them couldn't do ... bring a Stanley Cup to Buffalo.
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Lindy Ruff, head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, observes players during the team's practice session in Helsinki, Finland on Wednesday. AP photo