I look at the calendar and smile. Training camp opens this week. The first preseason game is Saturday. And there's only three more weeks until opening night.
Minus Alexei Zhitnik, Miro Satan and James Patrick, the Sabres don't look that much different than the last time they held training camp in 2002. The core of the team is still young and many are unproven. Recently signed Jay McKee is the only Sabre left over from the playoff era. Lindy Ruff still holds the reins. But there's also new reasons to be excited as Buffalo takes to the ice:
1) Thomas Vanek: It's no secret that Darcy Regier and company are counting on this guy to fill part of the goalscoring hole left by Satan. The Sabres haven't been more excited about a draft pick since Ryan Miller (we'll talk later on how that's turned out thus far). Regier drafted Vanek fifth overall in the 2003 entry draft. He's excelled at both the collegiate level -- a national championship with Minnesota and MVP of the Frozen Four -- and the American Hockey League level -- scoring 68 points (42G, 26A) last season, good for second overall in goal-scoring and second in points by an AHL rookie. He's a pure goal scorer, but will he be able to take his talent to the NHL level in the time that Buffalo's expecting? Regardless, he will be fun to watch during training camp and is practically a shoe-in to make the opening roster.
2) Three goaltenders: Yes, Marty Biron, Mika Noronen and Ryan Miller are all still here. So why should we be excited for a third straight year of the three-headed monster? It has to be time for someone to step up. If it's not resolved soon, I expect Ruff/Regier to eventually decide to keep two and move the other. Even Regier and many Sabres players have said it's good to have the competition in training camp/preseason, but this team needs to know who the number one netminder is come the regular season. All three have had their moments of glory and disaster. Who's it going to be?
3) A new defense: The addition of Teppo Numminen and Toni Lydman should stabilize the Sabres defense after losing Zhitnik and Patrick. Numminen will be called on to fill the veteran role, while Lydman is expected to replace a lot of the minutes that Zhitnik logged. Dmitri Kalinin is the key man on the backend; if 'Tri has a solid season, the defense as a whole will likely follow. If he's not ready to assume the 1 or 1a position, there will be trouble. It'll be interesting to see the mix of the new players and the dynamics of a defense that had been led by Zhitnik for a decade.
4) Healthy, eager core: From my knowledge, all of the key players -- Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, JP Dumont and Jochen Hecht -- are 100% entering training camp. The Briere-Dumont-Hecht line was almost unstoppable last season when all three were healthy and going strong. Each of them is willing to get dirty around the net and dig for loose pucks until someone scores. Drury's concussion is behind him, which is good news for the Sabres who need his leadership on and off the ice. This is a group that came together down the stretch for an impressive run, but can they string up wins early in the season? The Sabres' early season breakdowns have killed their playoff hopes for three years. Will this year be different?
So while this might not have been the best offseason for Sabres fans that hoped the new NHL would bring parity and bigger names to Buffalo, there is a lot to look forward to. It should be another close race to the playoffs this season. And it all starts in three weeks.
The Datsyuk mess: Mitch Albom had a funny (but serious) column in the Detroit Free Press today about the Red Wings' contract dispute with forward Pavel Datsyuk:
"Not to be a wet blanket, but Red Wings fans, party at your own risk. Hockey may be back, but when your best offensive player isn't even on the continent, only a fool pops champagne.
Here are two sobering words: "Pavel" and "Datsyuk." Any hockey expert will tell you he's the future of the Wings. And he's not here! He's in Russia, possibly under contract to not one but two teams. Ken Holland, charged with tightening Detroit's belt, has muffed the first lesson of Salary Cap 101: Sign your biggest star."
Albom's best point is that on an aging offense, which includes captain Steve Yzerman and leading scorer Robert Lang, Detroit needs its young offensive more than ever. With Henrik Zetterberg finally signed, all of the spotlight is on Datsyuk. But can you really blame Red Wings GM Ken Holland for not wanting to shell out $5 million a year for a 27-year-old player who had a breakout year last season (68 pts, 30 goals) but has been soft in the playoffs? Datsyuk might not be worth $5 million in the NHL, but he still might be worth it to the Wings.
Holland expected to receive a response on Sept. 13 from Datsyuk and his agent, but was met with another delay (Free Press):
"... they just need more time to make their decision," Holland said Monday morning outside Centre ICE, where the team will begin training camp today. "Obviously my hope is he ends up in a Red Wing uniform. However long it takes, hopefully, eventually we'll get a word saying he's coming back."
Datsyuk, a 27-year-old center of crucial importance to the Wings' success, has signed a contract in Russia with Avangard Omsk, a team partly sponsored by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Moscow Dynamo, Datsyuk's former team, has matched the offer, though reports out of Russia are murky on which team owns Datsyuk's rights. Holland said he thinks it's Dynamo.
The Wings have offered Datsyuk two- and three-year deals, each worth $3.8 million a season, and are not raising their bid.
"We are not negotiating," Holland said."