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Original Issue

6 Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo is a No. 1 center away from being the No. 1 team in the
Eastern Conference, a lofty position the Sabres might be
approaching too cautiously. Buffalo made a run at 35-year-old
free-agent star center Ron Francis during the summer but balked
at offering him a four-year deal, which is what he signed with
Carolina. Maybe the Sabres were unwilling to commit to a player
who would be nearing 40 at the end of the contract, but
management also might have been tacitly revealing that it doubts
the team can win the Stanley Cup in the next two years, when
Francis presumably will be at the top of his game.

Still, the Sabres, conference finalists last spring, should
flourish, especially if the NHL continues its crackdown on
obstruction. Buffalo forwards, a smallish group of natural
20-goal scorers, are fast, though a shade homogenous. Matthew
Barnaby and Michael Peca, however, add other important
dimensions. Barnaby sulked through the regular season but
exploded in the first two playoff rounds, not only in his
familiar role as the chronic pest, but also as Buffalo's leading
scorer. Peca is the NHL's top defensive center, but the captain
grew so gaunt by the end of the extended playoff run that goalie
Dominik Hasek could have used him as a stick. Peca needs to bulk
up physically and repair his reputation in the dressing room; it
took a hit when he declined to change his wedding date, which
would have fallen on the date of Game 6 of the Cup finals, had
the Sabres advanced that far.

Hasek also had a full calendar. He accepted the MVP award for
the second straight season before returning home to the Czech
Republic. He even found time to make his acting debut on Arli$$,
though his role as a goalie who imbibes too much one night
didn't thrill Sabres management, which was mindful that Hasek
had pleaded guilty to impaired driving in April 1995. But Hasek
is the Sabres' marquee performer. If the smaller crease doesn't
adversely affect him (Hasek likes to sprawl unimpeded), he
should continue to press his claim as one of the best goalies

Now if Hasek could win some face-offs and set up some first-line
wingers, Buffalo would really be in business.




Forward Miroslav Satan led the Sabres with 46 points (22 goals,
24 assists) last season, the lowest point total for a club
leader in the 28-year history of the franchise.


--The offensively challenged Sabres need consistent scoring from
talented but underachieving forwards Geoff Sanderson and Michal

--Matthew Barnaby must play throughout this season the way he
did in last year's playoffs, when he led Buffalo in scoring.