During a training-camp bonding junket to Charleston, S.C., 26
Sabres spent a day on the 1,600-acre grounds of the oceanfront
Wild Dunes Resort doing a series of team-building exercises such
as passing each other through a spiderweb of bungee cords. The
day's signature activity had players climbing a five-foot
stepladder and falling backward to the beach, where teammates
were waiting to save them. "You fall," said the drill organizer,
"and you have to have faith that your teammates will catch you."
In past years the Sabres needed only one player to save them:
six-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Dominik Hasek. When
financially-strapped Buffalo dealt Hasek and his $9 million
contract to the Red Wings for forward Slava Kozlov in July, that
burden fell to blueliners Jay McKee, Rhett Warrener and the rest
of a no-name defense that allowed the NHL's fewest goals last
year. "We've always asked every player to make a defensive
commitment," says coach Lindy Ruff. "I don't see that changing."
What will change is the body between the pipes. Highly regarded
24-year-old Martin Biron will fill Hasek's cavernous skates.
During a 39-game stint in 1999-2000, while Hasek was out with a
groin injury, Biron performed ably (19-18-2 with a 2.42
More suspect is the offense, which lost forwards Dave Andreychuk,
Donald Audette and Steve Heinze to free agency and Doug Gilmour
to retirement; those four combined for 34 goals and 57 assists
for the Sabres last year. Replacement firepower has to come from
Kozlov and Tim Connolly (obtained from the Islanders in the
Michael Peca deal), who will center the top line between Stu
Barnes and Miroslav Satan.
Last May, Buffalo was 1:18 from the Eastern Conference finals
when Mario Lemieux pushed the tying goal past Hasek in Game 6 of
the conference semis, a series the Sabres lost in seven games. To
improve on that 11th-hour collapse, Buffalo's blue-collar
replacement cast must overachieve. "For years a lot of good
players have played in Dominik's shadow," says Ruff. "I think
you'll see them poke their heads out."
--Daniel G. Habib
The Sabres, who led the league in penalty killing last season,
were scored upon only 12% of the time in shorthanded situations
(40 goals in 334 opportunities).
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
FORWARDS 19 Lack of size down middle could hurt over long
DEFENSE 9 McKee-Warrener tandem is one of league's best
GOALTENDING 14 Biron, fine in short stints, gets chance to be
SPECIAL TEAMS 12 Need someone to work slot area on power play
MANAGEMENT 15 G.M. Regier and coach Ruff are on the same page