Dominik Hasek is gone, and Buffalo is struggling just to earn a
In the film Buffalo '66, two of the characters spend a bleak
winter day watching videotapes of Bills games from the team's AFL
championship era in the mid-1960s and pining for those good ol'
days. In Buffalo '02 the Sabres fans are in a similar state of
longing--for Dominik Hasek, the six-time Vezina Trophy winner who
was traded last summer after having made Buffalo a playoff team
for eight of the last nine years. "They had a dominant goaltender
and they don't have that anymore," says Flyers coach Bill Barber,
whose team Buffalo eliminated in the first round of last year's
playoffs. "Hasek was their success."
Without Hasek the Sabres through Sunday were 22-25-4-1 and five
points behind the Canadiens for the final playoff spot in the
Eastern Conference. A small-market team, Buffalo was pressed by
financial necessity into trading Hasek, who is earning at least
$8 million this season, to the Red Wings for forward Slava Kozlov
and a first-round draft pick. "There's pressure on this team all
the time, the pressure of knowing you're not where you hope to be
in the standings," says alternate captain Rob Ray. "That takes
its toll. It's mental mistakes more than anything. We find ways
to throw games away."
The Sabres earned playoff berths in five straight seasons and a
trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999, with an average team that
had exceptional goaltending. This season they're just plain
average, beginning with their 15th-ranked offense (2.67 goals per
game). Though wingers Miroslav Satan, 27, and J.P. Dumont, 23,
are solid scorers, Buffalo lacks a sniper capable of putting
distance between it and its opponents. (In one- and two-goal
games the Sabres are 14-21.)
In net, 24-year-old Martin Biron, who's in his third full NHL
season, has performed as advertised: He's a developing talent
with a chance to be an excellent No. 1 goalie. Despite rocky
patches Biron has amassed good overall numbers (2.35 and .909).
"We're definitely not in the situation we're in because of
goaltending," says center Stu Barnes.
That the Sabres are in rebuilding mode is obvious. As well as
dealing Hasek and holdout center Michael Peca last summer, they
didn't re-sign free-agent wings Donald Audette and Steve Heinze,
both of whom were acquired last March at the trade deadline for
the playoff push. Buffalo's talented yet green core group of
youngsters is cause for optimism, but coach Lindy Ruff rejects
the suggestion that all the Sabres need is time. "Time," he
sighs, "can often be a coach-killer. I'm concerned with one
thing, and that's winning."
For that he'll have to go to the videotape.
All-Star Game Participation
Why Some Guys Don't Want to Go
To the well-worn gripes about the All-Star Game--it's nothing but
a game of shinny, and there's more scoring than at the senior
prom--add the complaint many players have rightly voiced this
year: With schedules sardine-packed because of the Feb. 14-25
Olympic break, an additional four-day hiatus this week to play a
sponsor-driven exhibition game is excessive. Moreover, the league
caved to players who kvetched about going to Los Angeles, like
Daniel Alfredsson of the Senators and Mike Modano of the Stars,
by leaving them off the All-Star rosters.
That means troupers like the Red Wings' Sergei Fedorov, Dominik
Hasek and Nicklas Lidstrom, all of whom will play at the
Olympics, get the short end by playing in the All-Star Game on
Saturday. Over a 57-day stretch in January and February that trio
will endure 21 NHL games (12 on the road) and as many as six
playoff-intensity matches in Salt Lake City. "There shouldn't be
an All-Star Game in an Olympic year," says Hasek, the starting
goalie for the World All-Star team and the Czech Republic in the
Olympics. "It's too much. The schedule could be easier for every
There's precedent for scrapping the All-Star Game in favor of
international play. In 1979 (Challenge Cup) and '87 (Rendez-Vous)
exhibitions between all-star teams from the NHL and the Soviet
Union were played instead.
It's natural, even laudable, for players such as Alfredsson and
Modano to put the Olympics and their teams' playoff drives
first--it's the league that's at fault for asking too much.
"These kids are tired and looking for a little break," says Pat
Quinn, coach of the North American All-Stars and the Canadian
Olympic team. "Ordinarily, the All-Star game is something to
look forward to."
All-Star Goalie Omissions
A Break for Team Canada
Here's a conspiracy theory: With Canada's first Olympic match 13
days after Saturday's All-Star Game, against Sweden on Feb. 15,
it's convenient that Curtis Joseph, Martin Brodeur and Ed
Belfour--Team Canada's goalies--aren't on the North American
All-Star roster. Because NHL executive vice president Colin
Campbell is responsible for filling out the rosters of the
All-Star teams after the fans have elected the starters, it's
reasonable to wonder whether... "Since I'm Canadian, I want as
much rest for the Canadian guys as possible?" Campbell said last
week, before laughing heartily. "I used that same [criteria] for
Mike Richter, Mike Dunham and Tom Barrasso." Campbell was
referring to Team USA's goaltenders, who also were omitted from
the All-Star Game.
Because there are no strict criteria for selecting All-Stars
("Ever play darts with a blindfold on?" Campbell asked), it's
tough to knock the North American backup netminders (Patrick Roy
of the Avalanche was chosen by the fans): Through Jan. 16, the
day on which selections were announced, the Coyotes' Sean Burke
(2.26 goals-against average, .921 save percentage) and the
Canadiens' Jose Theodore (2.15, .927) were having statistically
superior seasons to Joseph (2.27, .903), Brodeur (2.36, .899) and
Belfour (2.60, .899).
Nonetheless, it's a nice break for Team Canada, especially
because the top netminders for three of its main rivals in Salt
Lake City--the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek, Russia's Nikolai
Khabibulin and Sweden's Tommy Salo--are also World All-Star
goalies. Probably just a (wink, wink) coincidence.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT Despite solid play by Biron, the Sabres still miss Hasek's dominance.
COLOR PHOTO: D. MACMILLAN/B. BENNETT STUDIOS
COLOR PHOTO: MARK HICKS
Which Coach, Fired Last Week, Would You Rather Have?
Unyielding approach irked some of his players, but his NHL
record, all with the Stars, was 277-155-60-12. His postseason
mark was 47-33; he won the Stanley Cup in 1999.
Known as a player's coach, his record with the Devils was
73-43-19-6; earlier he was 122-161-45 with the Kings. His career
postseason mark was 31-21; he won the Stanley Cup in 2000.
THE VERDICT: A team would do well to hire either, but Hitchcock
has never had a losing record in 14 full seasons as a coach. He's
our pick. --D.G.H.