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Regier gives maturing Sabres one more chance

by John McGourty
Warning: The Buffalo Sabres have the rest of the NHL right where they want them.

Overlooking them.

Ignore the Sabres at your own peril -- that's the history of this franchise. One of the cardinal rules of hockey is "keep your head up." The Buffalo franchise has caught its NHL rivals with their head down more times than you can count.

Midway through the film classic "Casablanca," Peter Lorre's character asks Humphrey Bogart's character: "You despise me, don't you?" That set Bogey up for the best line of his career: "If I gave you any thought I probably would."

Ask yourself, do you fear the Buffalo Sabres this season? Did the Philadelphia Flyers fear them in 2006, 2001 or 1998? Did Ottawa, Boston or Toronto fear them in 1999? How about Montreal in 1975?

This is a team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals two years in a row in 2006 and 2007, a team that won the Northeast Division in 2007, a team that was in contention for a Stanley Cup Playoff berth until goalie Ryan Miller got hurt on Feb. 21; a team that had significant man-games lost by their best players on offense, defense and in goal.

The Sabres had as little turnover, coming and going, as any team in the NHL this summer and will be very similar to the squad that finished in third place in the Northeast, 10th in the Eastern Conference and 18th in the NHL. The Sabres missed the playoffs by two points.

The Sabres finished in the middle of the League in so many statistical categories that they can't be considered anything other than an average NHL team, neither bad nor good.

Gone are veteran defensemen Teppo Numminen and Jaroslav Spacek. Ales Kotalik was traded away late last season. Veteran forward Mike Grier re-signed with the Sabres after three seasons in San Jose. Forwards Cody McCormick and Jeff Cowan were acquired for depth and arriving defensemen Steve Montador and Joe DiPenta fill the gaps on defense.

Otherwise, the top 12 forwards remained largely unchanged, and goalies Miller and Patrick Lalime -- who had surgeries on both hips this summer -- will be back. Buffalo News writer John Vogl noted 16 forwards will vie for 12 jobs at training camp. "The Sabres simply have too many forwards capable of playing in the NHL (though the effectiveness of each is open to debate)," Vogl wrote.

See, even the local media is skating with their heads down.

Regier's oft-stated opinion is that the core of this group has reached NHL maturity and if they can remain healthy, they can do a lot of damage.

The battle plan relies on a healthy Tim Connolly, who hasn't played a full season since 2002-03, centering a first line of left winger Thomas Vanek and right winger Jason Pominville. Leading scorer Derek Roy is expected to center left winger Jochen Hecht and right winger Drew Stafford, who remains unsigned at this writing. Right winger Grier will likely play with center Paul Gaustad. Fourth-line center Adam Mair underwent hip surgery in early September and is out four-to-six weeks.

Expect AHL rookie of the year Nathan Gerbe, one year removed from leading Boston College to the NCAA championship, to win a job on the second, third or fourth line. Left winger Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo native, also made the AHL All-Rookie team, and while he may not make the roster out of camp, he should see some time in Buffalo.

Look for Hecht, Gerbe, Kennedy, Dan Paille, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Ellis to vie for the left-wing jobs behind Vanek. Connolly, Roy and Gaustad seem set at center. Tyler Ennis, a first-round draft pick a year ago, could jump from juniors to the Sabres' roster, at least until Mair returns. MacArthur and Ellis can also play center.

Rugged Patrick Kaleta is the front-runner for the fourth-line right-wing job but he'll be challenged by McCormick, Portland Pirates leading scorer Mark Mancari and Philip Gogulla, who has played five seasons in the top German league. Mancari, a veteran of 10 NHL games, has asked for a Sabres' roster spot or a trade. Buffalo was 12th in goals-per-game and seventh in power-play goals so that works against him. Better two-way play, not goals, is what the Sabres need.

Connolly had 18 goals and 47 points in 48 games but lost time to back and rib injuries. Project those numbers over a whole season and Connolly would be an All Star. Vanek has averaged 40 goals the past three seasons. He tied Rick Nash, Eric Staal and Marian Hossa for fifth in goals last season. Nice company!

Roy had 28 goals and 70 points. His nine game-winning goals were sixth in the NHL. Stafford hit 20 goals in his third NHL season.

Pominville has trended downward from 34 goals three years ago to 27 goals two years ago to 20 goals last season. He had 66 points after posting 80 points two years ago. Buffalo needs more production and may get it as he bids for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Hecht is another who needs to rebound. After five-straight seasons averaging 50 points, Hecht slipped to 27 last year. MacArthur is very versatile and is detail-oriented, making him an excellent depth player, and he added 17 goals and 31 points. The Sabres would be happy with 10 goals and 25-30 points from Grier, plus three hits per shift.

Former Bowling Green left winger Derek Whitmore, Gatineau Olympique center Paul Byron and Michigan right winger Travis Turnbull were all effective at their previous jobs and appear to be in the running for Sabres' jobs during training camp.

The rugged Craig Rivet was limited by knee and shoulder problems to 64 games. He had two goals and 24 points and can be expected to be more productive this season. He was Buffalo's only right-shooting defenseman so that's why Regier acquired Montador, who can also play wing. Regier's been drafting right-shooting defensemen in recent years.

The Sabres love the top pairing of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder, two quiet defensive defenseman who are excellent passers but don't do a lot offensively. Chris Butler, 22, was the Sabres' most pleasant surprise last season, going plus-11 in 47 games after being called up from Portland. Good things were expected from Andrej Sekera in his second NHL season, but he was plagued by a "lower-body injury" and was minus-11 in 69 games. Expect him to be much better this season, possibly bumping Butler off the second pairing.

Montador is iffy on defense but his offensive skills and right-hand shot make him a logical choice for the second power-play unit, possibly with Pominville on the other point. Rivet should man the top unit and may find Connolly as his partner.

Right-hand shot Tyler Myers, the Sabres' top pick in 2008, did everything right in his final year at Kelowna and will likely jump to the big club. He's tall and slim at 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds but he can hit. Most people think he'll be among the NHL's top defensemen within a few seasons.

DiPenta was with five NHL teams before jumping to the Swedish league last year. He's a veteran defensive defenseman who will likely play in Portland. Nathan Paetsch spent most of last year as a reserve and then suffered a late-season concussion. He's been up and down with Buffalo for four seasons and his window maybe closing.

Mike Weber could be seen as the future replacement for Lydman or Tallinder, a quiet, competent defensive defenseman. No flash, but he's reliable. Marc-Andre Gragnani led Portland's defensemen in scoring. It may take an injury or someone playing himself out of the lineup, but Gragnani should rent, not buy, in Portland this season.

Meanwhile, in the incubator, recent high-draft picks T.J. Brennan, Dennis Persson, Drew Schiestel and Corey Fienhage have all played well since being drafted and are a year or two away.

What teams want from their goalie: a guy who gives them a chance to win and can steal a few games. That goalie's name is Ryan Miller, one of the best in the business -- although his goals-against average and save percentage don't really support that argument. To repeat a phrase, who are you going to trust, a stat sheet or your own lying eyes?

It's not just the Sabres who think he's a good goalie: He was twice voted the best goalie and best player in the CCHA; won the Hobey Baker Award; was the best goalie in the AHL; has been an NHL All-Star; and started in the YoungStars game. Miller's 146 wins rank 14th among active NHL goalies but only three active goalies can top his .616 points-per-game average and it's all about points in the NHL. He ranks 10th among active goalies with a .910 save percentage.

The Sabres were tied for sixth when Miller got hurt on Feb. 21 and quickly fell out of the playoff race. Miller came back and the Sabres finished 7-2-1.

'Nuff said.

In some ways it's a surprise that Regier retained Patrick Lalime as the backup after he went 5-13-3 with a 3.10 GAA in 24 games. There are probably two reasons: First, Lalime is a great character guy and willing worker who won't agitate for more ice time but will be ready when asked. Second, Buffalo has a top goaltending prospect in Jhonas Enroth, the 46th pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, who had a 26-23-6 record, 2.75 GAA, .914 save percentage and three shutouts in 58 games at Portland last season.

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