|Defenseman Brian Campbell (photo: Getty Images)
BUFFALO, N.Y. - Ryan Miller
paused in mid-sentence, the Sabres goaltender worrying that his words might be interpreted as a slight against Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.
That wasn't Miller's intention. He respects the Sabres' former co-captains, who went their separate ways in free agency this off-season. But Miller wanted to make one thing clear about the state of the team they left.
"As much as I respect what Danny and Chris did for us, I think people need to give this team more credit," Miller said. "Without detracting from Chris and Danny, and this'll come off wrong, but they didn't do it all."
That statement may answer questions about how the Sabres intend to move forward without two players who contributed considerably to the team's success the past two seasons.
"We're going to have to prove we can do it on a consistent basis. Some guys are going to have to fill some roles," Miller said. "So we expect a challenge out of this, but it's something we're definitely going to be capable of."
The defending President's Trophy team hosting the New York Islanders on Friday is much different than the one that won a league-leading 105 games over the past two seasons and was both times eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals, including last year in five games to Ottawa.
Briere, who signed with Philadelphia, led the Sabres with 96 points last season. Drury signed with the New York Rangers after scoring a team-leading 17 power-play goals. Combined, they produced 15 game-winners and accounted for 75 of the Sabres league-leading 308 goals.
No surprise that few this season are picking Buffalo to be a Stanley Cup finalist. Not that it matters to the Sabres.
"I don't care," defenceman Brian Campbell said. "Pick us wherever you want. That's fine by us."
The Sabres, who also failed to re-sign forward Dainius Zubrus, made no splashes in free agency this off-season. Their only addition was signing backup goaltender Jocelyn Thibault.
Buffalo, however, did avoid losing another core player when it signed Thomas Vanek to a seven-year, US$50-million contract, matching the offer he received from the Edmonton Oilers.
Retaining Vanek was key because he scored a team-leading 43 goals last year. And Vanek's 132 career points (68 goals and 64 assists) are third among second-year NHL players behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin.
The challenge for Vanek is to continue producing now that he'll be part of the Sabres top line, initially rounded out by Maxim Afinogenov and Derek Roy, who led the NHL this pre-season with six goals and 13 points in five games.
The Sabres should have enough offensive talent to spread over the next two lines to keep opponents off balance as they did the previous two seasons.
Buffalo returns five forwards who scored 19 or more goals a year ago, and then there's play-making centre Tim Connolly, who missed all but two games to injury last season.
The Sabres also return six defencemen, seven if veteran Teppo Numminen determines he's healthy enough to come back after open heart surgery last month to repair a faulty valve.
And then there's Miller, who's gone 70-30-6 over his past two seasons and is regarded as the team's vocal leader.
"Yeah, I want to step up and claim it as my team, and by that I want to share it with 20-odd guys," Miller said. "And we all feel this is our team to go out and do what we can to set ourselves up for the best opportunity to get back to the playoffs and back to where we want to be."
Ruff acknowledged it took him more than a month to get over losing Drury and Briere, two players he had come to rely on heavily to get his message across and keep his team focused. It wasn't until late August that he finally began to look ahead.
"You're getting ready and looking at what you have, and you're thinking, 'The players that are gone are gone,"' Ruff said. "I really felt that we still had a good team. It just took a period of time."