With the Buffalo Sabres, it's never about who is coming in it's always about who is gone.
Such is life for an NHL team on a budget. The Sabres payroll may have inched up to $55.5-million (all currency U.S.) this season, still well under the salary cap of $59.4-million, but owner Tom Golisano never jumps into the free-agent frenzy come July 1, and only rarely allows general manager Darcy Regier to cough up loads of his money to keep a player headed for the open market.
This saw such talents as Daniel Brière, Chris Drury and Brian Campbell leave town over the years. Through it all, the Sabres have come agonizingly close a couple of times, thanks to the work of Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff, but the result was always the bitter disappointment so familiar to fans of both of Buffalo's major pro sports teams.
Ruff took the Sabres to a surprising third-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2009-10, riding goaltender Ryan Miller's magnificent season, but their lack of depth was exposed in a first-round loss to the Boston Bruins. Once they lost their top scorer, Thomas Vanek, to an ankle injury in the second game of the Bruins series, the Sabres' offence collapsed. They were already missing Jochen Hecht from their top six forwards and centre Tim Connolly was freshly back from yet another injury and was ineffective. Buffalo was out in five games.
Then Ruff and Regier had to watch as two of their most important defencemen, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman, left for bigger contracts elsewhere in the NHL.
"I think we take a lot of pride in trying to grow our own players," Ruff said Friday as the Sabres prepared for a preseason game Saturday night at HSBC Arena against their flashy, big-spending rivals from up the Queen Elizabeth Way, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Regier and Ruff have done an admirable job in that regard. Aside from Miller, who was the best goaltender in the NHL for much of last season, the Sabres system also produced 20-year-old defenceman Tyler Myers, last season's NHL rookie-of-the-year, and Vanek, who remained a Sabre when Golisano reluctantly matched a $50-million contract offer from the Edmonton Oilers three years ago.
"Sometimes the battles for the top free agents turn out for teams and sometimes they don't," Ruff said. "We hope we make enough right decisions [on draft picks]and develop them into real good NHL players."
But that still leaves Ruff a lot of patching and splicing to do with the NHL's version of drywall mud and binder twine.
This year's additions from the bargain bin are centre Rob Niedermayer and defencemen Shaone Morrisonn and Jordan Leopold. Niedermayer was added to counter the Sabres' lack of size and physical play, a critical issue when the playoff injuries forced Ruff to use talented-but-undersized forwards Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe on his top two lines. Not that Ruff is willing to concede that is a problem.
"If we had some healthy forwards in the top six there wouldn't have been any issue about it," Ruff said.
Size is not a problem on defence, where the 6-foot-8 Myers has added some muscle and is looking formidable in the preseason.
Ruff's problems remain with his top two lines, which are the same as last season. Derek Roy plays between Vanek and Drew Stafford while Connolly is the centre for Hecht and Pominville.
In the past five seasons Connolly, 29, has played more than 60 games only twice thanks to injures, including serious concussions. Both Pominville, 27, and Stafford, 24, were supposed to ease the pain of the loss of Brière and Drury a few years ago but tailed off after promising starts to their careers. Stafford, who came to training camp 10 pounds lighter, is in the last year of his contract and will need a big improvement on last season's 14 goals to get another one from the Sabres.
Also, Roy admits, "we need our power play to step up." While the penalty killers, thanks to Miller's great season, were second in the NHL last season with a success rate of 86.6 per cent, the power play was 17th with a 17.6-per-cent success rate.
This was not readily explained away by injuries, since most of the principals played almost all of the regular season, but the hope is that with Myers more experienced the right combination will be found as long as the injury gods smile on Vanek and Connolly.