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MEEHAN FEELS SABRES' TALENT WILL SURFACE

Rick Dudley's job is safe. For now.

There are no blockbuster trades planned. For now.

General Manager Gerry Meehan is confident the Buffalo Sabres' vast collection of talent will meld into an above-average hockey team. And the sooner it happens, the less likely major changes will be made.

As one might imagine, Meehan is displeased with the rocky course of the Sabres' season. And surely he said as much during a team meeting that preceded Monday's practice at Memorial Auditorium. The Sabres then left for Detroit, where they'll play the Red Wings at 7:35 tonight (Ch. 29, WGR).

Buffalo opened the year with a seven-game winless streak (0-4-3) and has played slightly over .500 since then (10-8-5).

Furthermore, the Sabres are averaging a scant three goals a game. They have exceeded that average in only three of 13 games at the Aud, where they are 4-4-5.

Be assured Meehan anticipated more offensive firepower when he acquired Dale Hawerchuk to go with the likes of forwards Pierre Turgeon, Dave Andreychuk, Alexander Mogilny and Rick Vaive.

But most distressing of all are the Sabres' occasional lapses into listlessness -- with Sunday night's 3-2 loss to Boston a prime example. Buffalo showed no ambition whatsoever while falling into a 2-0 first-period deficit.

"I think it's (lack of) focus," Meehan said. "I think they've drifted off into an area where they don't have a team goal. If you have a team goal, you don't let each other down; you're playing for the team. But if you don't have a team focus or team goal, it's easy to drift off into selfishness and lack of commitment.

"We have to get back to where the game we play that night is part of a process toward developing a style of play, and achieving short-term goals as well . . . Why not (aim for) first place by Jan. 1?"

Even when they've played relatively well, the Sabres have not won convincingly. Not since a 7-1 win over Vancouver Nov. 9 has Buffalo's margin of victory exceeded two goals.

Part of the problem seems to be a rigid offense lacking imagination and improvisation.

The Sabres are particularly predictable on the power play, where they rely almost exclusively on a perimeter passing game that's easily defended against. Buffalo's power-play success rate, 16.9 percent, ranks 15th in the 21-team league. The Sabres are 19th at home (14.5 percent).

"Let's face it, our goals-against and our defensive work are great," Meehan said. "We don't spend a lot of time in our own end anymore. It's down here (in the offensive end), where there's no creativity, that bothers me.

"Every goal seems to be caused -- and that's why there aren't many -- from scrums along the side of the net, not from nice creative plays."

There are numerous theories as to why Team Talent is struggling offensively. But Meehan doesn't buy the theory that Buffalo has too much talent.

"I felt if we're going to go anywhere as a championship contender, we couldn't concentrate on getting average players with average ability who overachieve," he said. "You can't win the Stanley Cup with an average team that overachieves. The secret is to get a talented team to overachieve. If you do that, you'll beat everybody."

And the Sabres, Meehan said, have abundant talent. Therefore, he sees no logic in forcing a trade.

"There's no reason to trade a guy who's a good player if you can otherwise get him playing," Meehan said. "I think the answer to that is, if the team needs a jolt, hopefully we can jolt it internally."

Depending on progress made over the next few weeks, that jolt may include a coaching change. But, as of now, Meehan has no such inclinations.

"If you make a decision or you make a gigantic trade, it's when you feel you're not going anywhere with this group of athletes or this group of coaches," Meehan said. "And I don't feel that event has occurred yet.

"This is not the time for this club to be entertaining a change of coaches."

Indeed, Meehan believes such drastic measures can be avoided.

"I feel our team has a nice combination of talented hockey players," he said. "We're not perfect, but no team is. I feel strongly that these guys, when they get focused on the goal of team success, they will respond."

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