THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
If you believe the Sabres, they're hoping to make the playoffs using a complicated formula based on addition by subtraction. To wit, now that selfish star Miroslav Satan is gone to the Islanders, the hard-working Sabres will be further ahead. But the problem with the new math is that sometimes it doesn't add up. One has to imagine that if the Sabres stay close that new owner Tom Golisano will free up some cash to make some additions come trade deadline time. But that's a long way away and the team will have to prove it's worth the investment.
Offense: Regardless of Satan's foibles, the fact the team did nothing to fill the offensive gap created by the departure of the team's most talented forward is a problem. How big a problem will depend on Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Maxim Afinogenov, J.P. Dumont and Jochen Hecht and whether they'll be better than advertised. All will have to up the ante if the traditionally low-scoring Sabres are to wiggle into the playoff mix.
Defense: The Sabres are always going to be sound under head coach Lindy Ruff. They lost longtime blueliner Alexei Zhitnik to the Islanders but brought in Teppo Numminen so that's a pretty good trade off. Dmitri Kalinin will have to build on an impressive start to his career and former top prospect Jeff Jillson, who came over from San Jose via Boston late in the 2003-04 season, must get his development back on track.
Goaltending: The Sabres will need one of their three goaltenders to step forward and prove himself a consistent No. 1 NHLer. It might be too much to ask, frankly. The group includes Martin Biron, who was expected to fill the void when Dominik Hasek left, Mika Noronen, who took a run at the No. 1 job in 2003-04 and couldn't pull it off, and goalie of the future Ryan Miller. All three may show flashes, but until someone can do it on a regular basis the Sabres will be on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES If a promising group of forwards that lacks a true "star" can score by committee, the Sabres will stay in the thick of the playoff race. One of the three netminders, likely Biron, will have to assert himself as a number one backstopper.
If the forwards cannot get over the hump, leaving the team with an entire roster of second-tier producers, the Sabres will be behind the eight ball offensively the entire season.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Maxim Afinogenov. Every once in a while since he arrived in 1999, Afinogenov will bring fans, scouts and the media out of their seats with a shared "Wow!" But just once in a while. At 26, the time for wondering and waiting for both player and team is past. The 6-foot winger has to deliver the goods.
The question is whether Lindy Ruff is the kind of coach to coax that kind of performance out of his troops. Given that the team has missed the playoffs three straight years, the clock has to be running on both Ruff and GM Darcy Regier. If Ruff can keep his players playing within the rules and using their speed, the Sabres may be the surprise team in the conference.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> THE REPLACEMENT
Signing Teppo Numminen. The three-time All-Star will more than adequately fill the hole left by Alexei Zhitnik. His calm and poise along the blue line will be crucial to the Sabres getting off to a good start, plus he is a definite upgrade offensively.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> NO MOVES
Signing a veteran, scoring forward -- and the market was flooded with them -- might have been nice, but the Sabres stood pat. When a team doesn't make a move, especially when all the teams around them at least give the impression of having made improvements, it sometimes has a negative impact on the dressing room.
Daniel Briere, C
Briere led the team with 28 goals and 37 assists in 2003-04.
Martin Biron, G
Biron had a 26-18-5 record during the 2003-04 season.
“I think what you're seeing is, you
have to be able to skate to play.”
— Ruff on NHL's new look