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Sabres Say They Want to Win Now

Season set to open with many storylines

The marketing and sales pitch is pretty explicit—the Buffalo Sabres’ front office has truncated the word “suffering” and replaced it with the word “blueprint.”

Gone is the notion of high priced, quick fix free agents. The roster and the payroll has been pretty much cut close to the bone, and everyone is eyeballing the 2015 NHL amateur draft, when prized prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are pretty much set to go first and second to the teams who have those picks. The Sabres have not only their own first round pick, but also that of the New York Islanders, which the team got as the major part of the Thomas Vanek trade.

Should the Islanders falter this season, the team could have as many as two bites at the apple in the draft lottery to land the top pick.

Sabres fans seem to be buying in to the program. Season ticket sales held steady over the summer with over a 93% renewal rate, and crowds this season should still be fairly robust, even if not at a continual sellout rate. All the expectations among the fan base and media pundits is that the team is going to be awful, and get ready for a long and tough season, with the promise that eventually things will turn around.

The only ones not going along with the plan are the players. Mention McDavid or Eichel, and most of the players bristle. They are playing for their own pride, their own careers, and their own success. They want to win. Some even mention the word “playoffs.”

“Nobody in this room is participating in this notion that we are in this for draft picks,” says defenseman Mike Weber. Weber admits that he understands why many feel down on the team’s chances, but says that the Sabres “might surprise” a few people this year.

Newcomer Brian Gionta, who is expected to be one of the veteran leaders in the room, echoed that sentiment, stating emphatically that “our goal is to make the playoffs.”

To do so, the Sabres have to start with superb goaltending, and right now that remains a question mark. The team’s DNA has always been to ride the hot superstar, Dominik Hasek and then Ryan Miller. Now the team has two journeymen between the pipes, Jhonas Enroth and Michael Neuvirth. Based on preseason results so far the starting job seems to be Enroth’s to lose, but it appears that Coach Ted Nolan might be giving both men substantial playing time this season.

Taro Sez...

• With HarborCenter speeding to a construction finish line, look for a simultaneous opening of the hockey rinks, parking ramp, 716 Food and Sports bistro and Tim Hortons somewhere around October 30.

• New NHL venue update: Ground has been broken for the new Rogers Place in downtown Edmonton, which will be the new home of the Oilers come 2016. The New York Islanders will move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn starting next season. With under 15,000 seats for hockey, it will be the smallest seating capacity in the NHL

• Just this week NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that there are no current or imminent plans to expand the league beyond its 30 teams, despite the unbalanced conferences. "We finally have all 16 teams in the eastern time zone in the right place," said Bettman. Quebec City, Seattle, Las Vegas and a second Toronto team continue to circulate among the rumor mill as expansion or relocation candidate markets.

The other veterans to watch this season besides Gionta are Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and the return of Matt Moulson. All are on board with the rebuilding effort. Add in Drew Stafford, who is in his contract year and is playing like he knows it, and you have the potential for some scoring punch. Another positive surprise has been the performance of Mikhail Grigorenko, who has added some weight and a new attitude. Nolan seems to be spending a great deal of time with his gifted but fragile center, and the organization is nowhere near ready to give up on him just yet.

With all the short term gloom surrounding the team’s chances this season, one need only go back to the 2005-06 season, the first one following the lost season due to labor conflict. The Sabres were ranked 27th by some national media outlets that year, most predicted a crash and burn, yet the team came out of the lockout well suited to the new rules changes, and electrified the fan base, taking the team to the Conference Finals and within one period of the Stanley Cup finals.

Could it happen again?

Ted Nolan’s history of success and overachievement wherever he coaches, the team seems loose, hungry and havng fun in camp, all the excitement about HarborCenter and Buffalo’e emergence as a centerpiece for hockey. The best case scenario a 7th or 8th place finish, defying all the pundits, and a New York Islanders’ last place finish, delivering their draft prize into Buffalo’s hands.

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