The story of the Buffalo Sabres has been one of sudden decline. After winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2006-2007, the Sabres missed the playoffs in 2007-2008 and have lost some vital components to their success.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what should be a busy summer as the Sabres re-shape the roster into that of a playoff contender.
The ongoing story of the Sabres' season was the absence of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, who were lured away by lucrative free agent contracts last summer. Not only was their absence felt in the lineup, but the ensuing exorbitant offer sheet to Thomas Vanek had to be matched because it was bad enough to let two stars walk -- the Sabres couldn't let it be three.
Given the rest of the Sabres' contractual commitments, it appeared unlikely that they would be able to get defenceman Brian Campbell signed to an extension and, sure enough, he was dealt to San Jose at the deadline.
With the Sabres missing the playoffs by four meagre points, it's fair to say that the presence of any one of those dearly departed may have been enough to make the difference.
At the same time, it's not as though the Sabres didn't have the horses to compete. Better seasons from Vanek or Maxim Afinogenov, most notably, would have made enough of a difference too.
Looking to the future, though, the Sabres are in the position to do some dealing this summer as they could have 15 NHL-calibre forwards, or more, on hand. For a team with holes on the blueline, there should be a match to be found that would allow the Sabres to shed some of their talent up front in order to solidify the back end.
While the Sabres' refusal to sign top players to long-term contracts does call into question their commitment to building a successful team, the nucleus is still in place for the Sabres to be a contending team with just a couple of savvy moves this summer.
General manager Darcy Regier hasn't been the most active dealer in recent years, and hasn't had to be as the Sabres have developed so much of their own talent, but the current makeup of the Sabres roster seems to dictate that it's time to hit the swap meet and get back to the playoffs.
Darcy Regier/Lindy Ruff
Top Prospects: Nathan Gerbe, Tim Kennedy, Philipp Gogulla
Derek Roy continued his career ascent -- he's elevated his point totals in all four of his NHL seasons -- and did his part to fill the void left by Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. That Roy finished with 81 points, despite linemates struggling early in the season, is a credit to his tenacity.
Like Roy, unheralded winger Jason Pominville has increased his scoring every year he's been in the league, but his strong finish to the season (42 points in 34 games after the All-Star break) should ensure that he doesn't sneak up on opponents anymore.
After signing a massive offer sheet with Edmonton last summer, which the Sabres matched, Thomas Vanek stumbled out of the gate, scoring 13 goals in 48 games, before heating up late in the year. Vanek has the skills to be one of the game's elite finishers, but needs to perform more consistently if he's going to earn the trust of Lindy Ruff.
Injuries continued to wreak havoc on Tim Connolly's career, only this time it wasn't the ongoing concussion woes that caused him to miss 34 games. Rather, groin, hip and oblique injuries kept Connolly out of the lineup. When healthy, though, Connolly's soft hands make him a productive playmaking centre.
Veteran Jochen Hecht is a stabilizing presence who plays a sound two-way game and is coming off a season in which he scored a career-high 22 goals.
Ales Kotalik is somewhat of an enigma, but his heavy shot helped him notch a career-best 12 power play goals last season. He hasn't been able to duplicate his 2005-2006 season, when he scored 62 points, but Kotalik can contribute as a complementary scorer; whether it's for the Sabres or another team.
Up-and-coming winger Drew Stafford has shown promising offensive ability in his first season-and-a-half in the NHL, scoring 29 goals and 65 points in 105 games. He could be ready for a bigger role next season.
Maxim Afinogenov played in 56 games for the second straight season, but that's where the similarities end. In 2006-2007, Afinogenov had 61 points and was an electifying game-breaking talent. In 2007-2008, he was a complete and total disappointment, scoring ten goals and 28 points and posting a career-worst minus-16. A fresh start in a new locale could be best for both parties.
Adam Mair is a solid fourth-line mucker, though he may have lost some of his edge, finishing with 66 penalty minutes in 72 games, after posting more than 120 penalty minutes in three of the previous four seasons.
Feisty Patrick Kaleta is all energy and hits everything in sight, but he played such a minimal role that he could have a hard time sticking in Buffalo if all forwards are healthy.
Enforcer Andrew Peters has six points in 172 career NHL games and played a little over three minutes per game last season. Aside from fisticuffs, the heavyweight doesn't offer much.
Dan Paille emerged not only as an NHL regular, but also a nice secondary scorer, tallying 19 goals while only playing a little more than 13 minutes per game.
Power forward Steve Bernier was acquired as part of the Brian Campbell deal. While 32 points in 2007-2008 represented the high mark of his first three NHL seasons, Bernier has yet to put it all together and develop into the 30-goal scorer that was expected. He'll need to improve his conditioning and speed if he's going to maximize his impact with the rest of the Sabres' talented forwards.
Paul Gaustad is an effective big-bodied checking centre who continues to improve, scoring a respectable 36 points in his third NHL season. In addition, Gaustad's physical presence is needed on a team with a lot of finesse up front.
Clarke MacArthur has shown steady improvement in his pro career and should be ready for full-time duty next season after faring well in 37 games in 2007-2008. He's a hard-working winger who has developed his scoring touch in the AHL.
With such a deep crop of forwards, the Sabres hardly need to look for more bodies up front and may prefer to use some of that surplus to address needs on the blueline. It might make sense to shop some of the up front talent just to create room for Boston College waterbug Nathan Gerbe, who ripped through the NCAA as the Eagles captured the national championship.
Top Prospects: Chris Butler, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Dennis Persson
34-year-old Jaroslav Spacek can be effective in spots, but he's a much better fit as a number two behind a workhorse who can handle the big minutes. Nevertheless, Spacek still has the puck skills to be a contributor on the power play, where he scored 22 of his 36 points.
Toni Lydman is a steady presence on the blueline, able to handle the tough assignments defensively and able to move the puck decently.
Lydman has probably had his most success when paired with Henrik Tallinder, as the pair has shutdown potential when they are on their games. Tallinder has good size, but more aggressiveness would make him even more difficult to face.
20-year-old prospect Mike Weber was thrust into action late in the season and finished an impressive plus-12 in 16 games. Weber may need more seasoning in the AHL, but there is lots for the Sabres to like about this tough defensive defenceman.
The departure of Brian Campbell opens up an opportunity for Andrej Sekera, who handled a significant workload in the final couple of months. The Sabres would be wise, though, to ease Sekera into an offensive role, only because it's a lot of responsibility for the 21-year-old to handle at this stage of his development.
After a nice rookie season, Nathan Paetsch regressed last season and couldn't work his way into a regular spot in the top six. The 25-year-old has the skills to produce much more than the nine points he managed in 59 games in 2007-2008.
With so few pieces on the blueline, the Sabres need to be aggressive in their efforts to upgrade. If they're going to do it in free agency, John-Michael Liles, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit would all provide a much-needed puck-moving element. In terms of finding depth defencemen, Jeff Finger, Kurt Sauer and Mark Eaton would be good targets.
Of course, if the Sabres are going to land a real blue-chipper on the blueline, they might be able to swing a blockbuster deal involving multiple forwards. Who might be of interest? Florida's Jay Bouwmeester and Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa are young, talented defencemen who might be landed with a bold offer.
Top Prospect: Jhonas Enroth
The Sabres threw a heavy workload at Ryan Miller and it took its toll later in the season, but the 27-year-old is solidly established as a quality NHL starter. Now it's up to him to take it to the next level and compete with the best at the position.
Jocelyn Thibault didn't see a lot of action, and didn't play all that well when he did get in the game, so the Sabres may look for another option as Miller's backup.
13th - Kyle Beach, Colin Wilson, Colton Teubert, Luca Sbisa
26th - Jake Gardiner, Jordan Eberle, Daulton Leveille
The Sabres have approximately $43-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top pair defenceman, one depth defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Sabres needed last year: One top six forward, backup goaltender
Who did they add? Clarke MacArthur, Michael Ryan, Nolan Pratt, Jocelyn Thibault
Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Tim Connolly, Drew Stafford, Dan Paille, Nathan Paetsch
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org