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Sabres seek repeat performance atop Northeast

by Sergei J. Feldman
What goes up, must come down. And vice versa.

While a recognizable adage, the notion more so tells the tale of the Buffalo Sabres, especially the past few years.

After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006 and 2007, the Sabres failed to make the playoffs the next two seasons, leaving fans, players and management wondering which direction the team was heading in. Fortunately for those involved, the Sabres found their groove and proved to be one of the more consistent teams in the NHL last season, finishing with 100 points.

But while the Sabres went on to capture the Northeast Division title, they were ousted in the first round, upset in six games by a sixth-seeded Boston Bruins team.

Along the way came the emergence of goaltender Ryan Miller as one of the League's best, as he reached cult hero status among Sabres Nation and Americans with not only his performance in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver -- in which he helped carry the United States to a silver medal -- but throughout the season, as well.

Miller, a 29-year-old, East Lansing, Mich., native posted a 41-18-8 record with a 2.22 GAA and .929 save percentage. The staggering stats represented his finest single season since joining the Sabres in 1999 as a fifth-round selection. For his efforts, he was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender and was voted onto the First All-Star team.

Keeping the puck out of the net wasn't the only factor in the team's overall success. The Sabres finished the season with 12 double-digit scorers, four of whom eclipsed the 20-goal mark. The underrated cast of scoring characters included center Tim Connolly, who posted a career-high 65 points.

But those highlights represent the past. Looking ahead to the coming season, the Sabres control whether the peaks will become aberrations or norms. At the least, with training camp just around the corner, the Sabres will hope last season's successes were a necessary part of a team's development and that being labeled "Cup contenders" in 2010-11 won't be a stretch.

However, the Sabres weren't immune to the effects an offseason can have on a team and will have to juggle a new roster come Opening Night in October. 

As free agency began on July 1, the Sabres immediately looked different.
Defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman elected to go elsewhere, signing with the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Ducks, respectively.

Tallinder had been a member of the Sabres family since he was drafted in 1997. Moreover, the Sabres lost more than a body and a roster spot in Tallinder, as he was a steady, stay-at-home defenseman with immeasurable leadership skills. Ultimately, though, the Sabres wouldn't offer what Tallinder had wanted and he signed a four-year deal with New Jersey that will pay an average of $3.375 million annually.

Lydman was another model of consistency for the Sabres. He played five seasons in Buffalo after being brought in from Calgary and played no fewer than 67 games in each of those seasons. 

Also, the team lost some speed and offensive instincts in Tim Kennedy. He notched 10 goals and 26 points in his first full season in the NHL.

The beating on defense didn't last long. Although the Sabres lost Tallinder and Lydman, veteran defenseman Jordan Leopold, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins, signed a three-year, $9 million contract.

Leopold brings a solid two-way game to the table and is a perfect fit for the type of transition-style hockey the Sabres like to play. Furthermore, the loss in leadership and experience will be made up in Leopold, as he has played in nearly 500 NHL games and has reached the Stanley Cup Final with the Calgary Flames in 2003-04.

Leopold will join captain Craig Rivet, Steve Montador, and rising star Tyler Myers on what figures to be one of the stronger defensive units in the Eastern Conference.

Adding to the veteran presence was defenseman Shaone Morrisonn. The 6-foot-4, 217-pound blueliner spent the last six seasons with the Washington Capitals and will give the Sabres an always needed stay-at-home presence.

With experience and versatility as primary factors, the Sabres also decided to bring in veteran forward Rob Niedermayer into the mix, signing the former Devil to a one-year, $1.15 million contract.

With head coach Lindy Ruff leading the charge from behind the bench, team confidence isn't hard to come by. Ruff is approaching his 14th season as Sabres coach, which represents the longest tenure in the League. His preference for style of play hasn't wavered and his gold medal-winning accomplishment last season as assistant coach of Team Canada might just be the linchpin for getting over the championship hump in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

That, coupled with Miller preventing rubber from contact with net between the pipes, should make the Sabres confident about their prospects for the upcoming season.

But there are no guarantees, of course, and questions still remain.

Will sniper Thomas Vanek return to his 40-goal form? More importantly, will he stay healthy enough to do so? The sniper was sidelined for 11 games last season and finished with a respectable 28 goals. The Sabres will need his scoring touch to make an impact this season.

Meanwhile, Myers, who won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie, figures to only get better with age. The 20-year-old tallied an impressive 11 goals and 48 points in his first season, all while logging the most minutes of any player on the team. Those minutes might be reduced next season to maximize his shifts, but his impact on the ice will be felt by opponents either way.

Overall, with those pieces in place, the Sabres could be among the teams to beat in the East. But they're also aware that with a minor slip, they could take a back seat, as they've done before.

What goes up, may go down.

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