It’s not that general manager Darcy Regier
feels the Buffalo Sabres
won’t miss Chris Drury
and Daniel Briere
. He admits that replacing two of the NHL’s top centers presents a challenge to a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season. But he also sees the open lineup spots as a boost for the organization’s developmental process.
“Losing Briere and Drury is obviously a step back, but at the same time it will allow a number of players the opportunity to take the next step forward in their careers,” Regier said.
Briere and Drury combined for 69 goals and 154 points last season, helping the Sabres finish with the NHL’s best regular-season record. Just as important was their role as leaders in the dressing room — both were part of a multi-captain system used by head coach Lindy Ruff.
Regier recognizes that replacing the offense Drury and Briere contributed won’t be easy, and he knows it’s also likely to take some time to fill the leadership void. But Regier believes the Sabres have kept their pledge to grow from within, and that could help in both areas.
“When you lose players like Drury and Briere, you’re definitely going to lose goals. We’re prepared for that, in that we will continue to be responsible in our own end and work as a unit to produce in the offensive zone,” Regier said. “But we truly believe we have young players that can step up and, as a group, produce. (Rochester coach) Randy Cunneyworth does a great job of integrating our systems at the AHL level, and Lindy continues that at the pro level. They have helped the incremental growth of our young players.”
According to Regier, this could be a pivotal season for many of the team’s prospects, as well as for the core of younger players who have already gained experience in the NHL.
“This is a chance for many of our young players who have been on the fringe to step in and play key roles — and for those that have already gotten a taste at this level to take on greater responsibility,” Regier said.
After Briere and Drury left via free agency, team management opted to keep 23-year-old Thomas Vanek by matching the seven-year, $50 million offer sheet tendered by the Edmonton Oilers. The Austrian forward had a 43-goal, 84-point breakout season in 2006-07, when he was also a league-leading plus-47. But Regier said what the Sabres achieve in 2007-08 won’t solely depend upon the kind of numbers Vanek puts up.
“We, of course, expect big things for Thomas, and as far as we’re concerned, the sky’s the limit for him,” Regier said. “I spoke to Thomas recently and told him to just go out and be himself. Don’t try to take the team on your shoulders, just do your thing. Basically it’s like the old saying by Casey Kasem goes; ‘Reach for the stars, but keep your feet grounded.’ He’s comfortable with his role, and he’s looking forward to getting the season going.”
Talented center Tim Connolly missed all but two regular-season games due to concussion-related problems, but showed in 16 playoff games that when healthy, he can be an offensive force. Connolly, still only 26, had nine assists in the postseason, and Regier expects big things from him.
“Tim is big part of our offense when he’s out there, and if he can stay healthy, it will really improve our depth up the middle,” he said.
|Drew Stafford, with 27 points in 41 games, proved to the Sabres that he can play at the NHL level.
Regier also pointed out the consistency of Jochen Hecht
, who is coming off a career-best 56-point season.
“Hecht is another player who has proven to be dependable, and we’ll count on him as well,” he said.
But Regier feels the Sabres’ homegrown core will make or break the team both this season and for years to come. He says players such as Drew Stafford (27 points in 41 games), and Daniel Paille (11 points in 29 games), have proved they’re NHL-ready and have the maturity and experience to contribute.
“Paille and Stafford really showed us they can play at this level, and they displayed that poise and maturity needed to stay up here,” Regier said.
The Sabres also have hope that some of their top minor-leaguers may make the club and contribute.
“We’ve got players like Michael Ryan and Clarke MacArthur who are on the fringe, and they could also make that leap,” Regier said.
As far as the leadership void left by Drury and Briere, Regier has seen others show they are ready to lead.
“Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad have shown those qualities and are an example of our players maturing through different levels of our organization,” Regier said.
The Sabres have built one of the NHL’s best teams over the last two seasons by developing talent from within. Regier says that approach will continue.
“Lindy, Randy and our staff have done a fabulous job of keeping a stable environment and that is how players will continue to develop and slide into key spots of our lineup,” he said. “We’re excited to see who those players will be and excited for the new season.”
Senators lock up Fisher: The 2007-08 season is still a couple of weeks away, but the Ottawa Senators are already looking to the future. On Monday, the team announced it had signed unrestricted free agent-to-be Mike Fisher to a five-year, $21 million extension.
Fisher scored 22 goals and added 26 assists in 68 games with the Senators last season while centering Ottawa’s second and third lines. In 384 career NHL games, Fisher has 92 goals and 100 assists and a plus-49 rating.
“I just love playing here,” Fisher said Monday. “The organization is one of the best in the league; you hear from guys coming in and guys leaving, that a lot of people want to play here. I count myself as being very fortunate play here and I’m very thrilled that we came to this agreement.”
GM Bryan Murray was just as excited to have the 27-year-old in the fold for another five years.
“I think he’s a real cornerstone guy,” Murray said. “We think he will be a very good player for us and keep our team competitive for the term of his contract, at least. I feel very strongly that it’s a real important day for the franchise.”