The Buffalo Sabres made just three personnel changes from last season's lineup, but they still expect to be an entirely different team this time around.
Bolstered by the additions of super-pest Steve Ott and 6-foot-8, 270-pound scrapper John Scott, the Sabres want to shed their reputation as pushovers. For a long time, the scouting report on the Sabres was that they were easy to push around, something general manager Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff were eager to change.
"It was a big thing the team wanted to address in the off-season," forward Jason Pominville said Monday as the Sabres prepared to play the Toronto Maple Leafs. "They made it clear when they traded one of our top offensive players in Derek Roy and got some grittiness."
The grittiness was Ott, 30, who became one of the NHL's most hated players in his eight seasons with the Dallas Stars. At 6-feet, 190 pounds, Ott is far from one of the NHL's biggest players but he has yet to see an opponent's face he doesn't want to wash or a body that doesn't need to be driven into the boards.
"Otter's been around the league for a long time," Pominville said. "He's one of first guys you hear, 'I hate playing against him.' We're pretty happy to have him on our side.
"He's a prick to play against. He's in your face."
It did not take long for the personality of Ott and the hulking size of Scott to have an effect on the team. In the Sabres' season-opening 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, forward Drew Stafford, not previously known for such things, dropped his gloves and engaged Flyer ruffian Scott Hartnell in a fight when the latter drove Pominville into the boards from behind and then flattened Tyler Ennis.
That was a long way from the embarrassing night of Nov. 12, 2011 when Bruins winger Milan Lucic ran over Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and left him concussed. The Sabres did not say so much as an angry word to Lucic, which left Ruff steaming and Miller out of the lineup for eight games. The coach was much happier when Stafford took on Hartnell on Sunday.
"We've had some tough moments as a team," Ruff said. "That was a really good moment."
Now, with Ott and Scott joining resident pest Patrick Kaleta, opponents will be a little less self-assured skating among the Sabres.
It also makes veteran defenceman Robyn Regehr more comfortable. When he arrived in a trade in June, 2011, Regehr found a much different mindset in Buffalo from the Calgary Flames, where he played for a couple of the Sutter brothers.
"It was different than what I was used to, coming from a team where you have Darryl Sutter or Brent Sutter coaching," he said of hockey's most combative family. "It's a very different style of game.
"Different teams have different feels to them. Whether that driven by a group of players in the room or the coach wants to play different style, there are always those driving forces."
Size does not always matter in these instances, either. The Sabres did not want a team that will fight at the drop of an insult, as that has been passé in the NHL for years, but one that will not hesitate to make the hit that is there plus a few that aren't.
"A guy can be hard to play against; it doesn't matter if he's 5-foot-6," Regehr said. "A guy like Theoren Fleury for example, who made a career out of being a feisty player. [Size] doesn't matter as much as personality. That is a huge factor."
The Sabres will play their second game in a row without winger Ville Leino, who has a leg injury. Jochen Hecht will fill in for him again.