Sabres: Turning the corner?

The 2002-03 season was memorable for the Sabres for all the wrong reasons.

Ownership scandals, bankruptcy and a poor team beset by injuries resulted in despair, a stark contract to the euphoria they created with their appearance in the finals in 1998-99. Not much went right for the Sabres, who missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. But they're committed to turning it all around. The new stability of owner B. Thomas Golisano, the signing of Chris Drury and talent up front have the Sabres believing they have emerged from the ashes and face a much brighter future. Playing an extra game against their division foes won't hurt either. No team will benefit more from rekindling old rivalries than the Sabres.

  • Lifting the logjam at center: In addition to Drury, the Sabres have several pivotmen vying for jobs who have a decent amount of NHL experience -- Daniel Briere, Steve Begin, Curtis Brown, Tim Connolly and Adam Mair. All played 50 or more NHL games last season.

    Connolly, probably most of all, will be helped by Drury's arrival. To this point, beginning with the hype that accompanied being taken by the Islanders with the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 draft, Connolly has not exactly thrived under the pressure. It didn't help that he arrived in Buffalo with Taylor Pyatt as part of the deal that sent former captain Michael Peca packing. Some Buffalo fans still haven't forgiven the front office for allowing Peca to stage a year-long holdout in 2000-01 before trading him away. Connolly has to produce this year, no doubt about it.

    Don't count out top prospect Derek Roy, who was the Sabres' second choice (No. 32 overall) in the 2001 draft, from making his presence known. Though small at 5-foot-9, the 20-year-old racked up 78 points -- 28 of them goals -- last season with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario League.

  • More scoring...? Coach Lindy Ruff believes his roster has as much punch as any since he took over as bench boss in 1997-98 -- which isn't saying a lot considering no Sabre has compiled more than 40 goals or 80 points in his tenure.

    Nevertheless, if Maxim Afinogenov can recover from his past concussion problems, he'll add a great deal. They also have Miroslav Satan -- last year's leading scorer with 75 points; Ales Kotalik, who scored 21 goals as a rookie; J.P. Dumont, who simply has to improve on his 14 goals from last season lest he be left out in the cold, and Jochen Hecht, who had 26 points in 49 games. They are not the most well-known team in the league by any means, but Ruff has a strong work ethic and tries to impart that to his players.

  • ... from the defense, too? The Sabres will be looking for significant contribution at both ends of the ice from offensive-minded Andy Delmore, 26, whom they acquired from Nashville in exchange for a third-round pick in 2004. Last season, Delmore led all NHL blueliners in power-play goals with 14. However, he needs to be more vigilant in his own end. He finished at minus-17, which was third worst on the team. In other words, don't look for him to be paired with Alexei Zhitnik. Others who are expected to shore up the back line are Joel Bouchard, who signed as a free agent, Dmitri Kalinin, James Patrick and Henrik Tallinder.

    The last line of defense is once again expected to be Martin Biron, who some have said will have the top job by default. If Biron doesn't step up as the front office wants and expects, you might see more of Mika Noronen. This season, at least, they'll have a whole lot more to work with.

    Nancy Marrapese-Burrell of the Boston Globe is a requent contributor to ESPN.com.