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Stanley Cup Parade Next June? Not So Fast!

All the pundits around the NHL are singing a different tune than from that of a year ago. When the league came out of the lockout, much of the national media picked the Buffalo Sabres to finish the season dead last. Sports Illustrated ranked our team 27th. After enduring several chaotic seasons under the threat of bankruptcy and even dissolution, the on-ice product looked bleak.

Back then Managing General Partner Larry Quinn bucked the tide, assuring fans that the team might surprise a few people and boldly stating “not making the playoffs is not an option.”

This season finds everyone in a completely different mood—the expectations bar has been raised in Western New York. Will any fan really be content with just an appearance in the playoffs? Will anything short of another run right to the Stanley Cup Finals make us happy?

A recent column in The Sporting News was the clincher. “People of Buffalo, start planning that parade. The years of heartbreak will end because this team is built for this not-so-new-anymore NHL. It has speed, depth and solid special teams…”

Should we be excited or afraid?

Well, it’s time to get a little dose of reality, because while we’re out snapping up tickets and signing up for new team jerseys, this year’s edition of the Buffalo Sabres might be very, very good. “Scary good!” Then again, this is Buffalo, and long-suffering local sports fans might be in for a world of disappointment.

These factors might contribute to a long season for the team:

Tim Connolly’s head case—Connolly is now recovering from his second concussion, which happened during game two of the quarterfinals vs. Ottawa. That was nearly five months ago and he still isn’t right. His timetable for returning to the ice is uncertain, yet the team took a gamble that the old Tim Connolly will be back at some point, signing him to a three-year contract extension.

Connolly’s contributions to the Sabres can’t be understated; remember he scored the dramatic tying goal against Ottawa in game one of that series in the closing seconds. He’s a valuable playmaker and especially effective on the power play.

Farewell Mike Grier and Jay McKee—They were leaders both on and off the ice, and took with them lots of the leadership and toughness which carried the team during its magical run. Who will fill their shoes? And if you’re facing the Sabres, who on this team scares you? (Well, we know Philadelphia’s R.J. Umberger’s answer!)

Danny Briere’s mega-payday—Ten players filed for arbitration during the offseason, yet no one got the huge payout like Briere did, a one-year deal in the $5 million range. Will the Sabres dangle him as trade bait, or will he eventually be signed to a long-term deal? And will that issue become a distraction in the Buffalo clubhouse?

The salary cap—Don’t look now, but the Sabres have become a “big market team,” boasting a total team payroll in the $40 million range. The NHL salary cap for this season is $44 million, and that means that there is very little wiggle room. Should the team suffer any key injuries, General Manager Darcy Regier might be unable to make any moves of significance.

The expectations factor—Teppo Numminen shrugs this off, saying, “We are now familiar with each other and know what to expect, and that wasn’t so last year.” Coach Lindy Ruff is also saying all the right things, but clearly the pressure will be on to produce.

The conference is better—Pittsburgh will be a much better team with a seasoned Sidney Crosby and newcomer Evgeni Malkin. Ditto for Washington and budding superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Zdeno Chara instantly makes Boston a contender. Don’t discount the New York Islanders; we know all too well what a coach like Ted Nolan can do to inspire a team. The Eastern Conference has gotten better.

The Sabres’ home schedule opens on Friday against Montreal. Yes, there is much to look forward to—the core of the team is intact, Ryan Miller will be that much better, new defenseman Jaroslav Spacek will add an offensive threat on the blue line and the team is still well suited for the new NHL. For now, hold off on those parade plans and let’s just enjoy the ride.

TARO SEZ… (Hamilton sucks edition)

So Hamilton thinks they may land the Penguins? Ha! Taro wuz at Copps Coliseum for the Sabres/Pens exhibition game and has his ideas…

• If you want to have a team, show the NHL you can fill a building. That night Copps was (ahem) about half filled.

• Despite the fact that the Sabres are a short hour’s drive to Hamilton, most fans cheered for Pittsburgh. What? You Hamilton folk think Buffalo is why there’s no team in Steeltown. Hardly! Your biggest obstacle lies with that high-and-mighty club at the other end of the QEW.

• If you hate shootouts, the game’s ending was a nightmare, going 11 rounds before Buffalo finally won. Said Ryan Miller, “The ice surface was about the worst we’ve seen in training camp. It was horrible on shooters.”

• And the largest crowd jeers during that shootout were heaped on Sabres forward Adam Mair, a native son of Hamilton-Wentworth. Go figure.