Key losses: Miroslav Satan, RW (FA - NYI); Alexei Zhitnik, D (FA - NYI); Eric Boulton, LW (FA - ATL)
Key players unsigned: None
Forwards: The Sabres have a number of young, fast forwards that should flourish in the new NHL. Players like Derek Roy and Paille will benefit from a year in which they led the Rochester Americans to the AHL's best record. Pre-season Calder Trophy candidate Vanek had no trouble adjusting to the speed of the pro game, finishing second in the AHL with 42 goals scored (Manchester's Mike Cammalleri finished first with 46); his emergence will soften the blow of losing Satan, if it doesn't make people forget about Miro altogether. The remarkably durable Daniel Briere is entering his prime, coming off a 2003-04 in which he set career highs in assists, points and PIMs. Jochen Hecht, when healthy, also impresses. Wingers J.P. Dumont and, when he feels like it, Maxim Afinogenov provide additional goal scoring, and Chris Drury is as clutch a player as there is in the League. Buffalo's forwards are somewhat undersized, and the lack of a center that can be counted on to win key face-offs is troubling, but the overall speed and depth of the group puts this group in the top 10 in the NHL.
Defensemen: Buffalo in essence swapped out Zhitnik for an older model of a similar mold in Numminen. At a savings of more than $1.5 million, this is a good move. Numminen will assume most, but not all, of Zhitnik's minutes, but Zhitnik's departure leaves the Sabres without a true #1 defenseman who can give the team 25+ minutes a night. As a result, Dmitri Kalinin, Henrik Tallinder and Rory Fitzpatrick will likely see increased workloads. Brian Campbell's development has been disappointing, and as the team searches for more offense from the blueline, Jeff Jillson could see increased ice time as well. The six defensemen noted here plus Jay McKee totaled only 27 goals in 2003-04, 10 of which belonged to Kalinin.
Goaltenders: Buffalo has a three-headed monster in goal with Martin Biron, Mika Noronen and Ryan Miller, but three's a crowd and someone will be the odd man out. Sabres fans (and undoubtedly all three netminders) are getting frustrated with the situation, and now is the time to pick one guy and run with him. Our pick is Miller, who absolutely dominated the AHL last year, becoming the first goalie in 40 years to win 40 games in that league, and has nothing left to prove at that level. He has struggled in his brief NHL appearances, but that was a while ago and now is the time for Buffalo to hand the reins to the young American. One would have thought that the Sabres would have bought out Biron when they had the chance, but as that didn't happen, look for them to get more aggressive in trying to trade him in the weeks ahead. Noronen is a solid #1A goalie to pair alongside Miller.
Bottom line: The Sabres seemed to be in a terrific post-lockout position, having numerous young, talented and cheap players under contract. Couple that with relatively-new owner Tom Golisano's billions of dollars and one would have thought that the Sabres would have been a major player in the free agent market. One would have been wrong. With talent up front and between the pipes, Buffalo is the kind of team that can run off a handful of wins in a row numerous times throught the regular season, but down the stretch and come playoff time unless the defense is improved, it will be a long summer in western New York. In the new NHL, it looks like we've still got the same old Sabres, a team that's not too far away, but will be fighting to make the playoffs come spring.
Update (8/25): The Sabres acquired Lydman from the Flames to help on the blueline. In Lydman the Sabres get a solid defenseman with some offensive skill, though he hasn't yet lived up to expectations offensively. The move also may indicate that the Sabres are not hopeful that they can sign McKee.
Update (9/9): The Sabres have resigned McKee, so the blueline is good to go.