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THE SHORTER THEIR MEMORIES, THE BETTER THE SABRES' CHANCES

Eric Rasmussen doesn't know anything about John Muckler, except that the ex-general manager drafted him as a 19-year-old just after his freshman year of college.

The rookie forward doesn't know firsthand the reasons the Buffalo Sabres dumped Ted Nolan, the financial dilemma surrounding the Pat LaFontaine deal, the real and sometimes tragic splits among ownership, or the late-spring and summer-long discontent involving Dominik Hasek, his ex-coach and some of his teammates.

If some 21 other players, a coach, a general manager and a front-office support staff can find their way to Rasmussen's level of ignorant bliss, the Buffalo Sabres have a chance to make something of the 1997-98 regular season.

It's a slim chance, but we remain hopeful.

Opening night is usually not the time to come down hard on a franchise that has its entire season in front of it, but it's hard to find a positive from the most bizarre offseason in franchise history.

Are the Sabres still a good young team with talent on the rise in the Northeast Division? Yes, but at this point they are not as deep and may not be as determined as last season.

Last season was lightning in a bottle -- a fun and surprising ride through a division that was ripe for the taking by any team with good goaltending and a willingness to achieve.

Since that run ended, the Sabres have been engaged in a series of off-ice debacles, each one seemingly more disturbing than the one before it.

On ice, they've stood pat (now Pat-less), or lowered their experience level via firings (Muckler, Nolan), free-agent walkaways (Garry Galley), contract disputes and the refusal to welcome back captain Pat LaFontaine. Judging from the winless preseason, the team is undermanned, the determination of the players at hand is still at an ebb and the quality of the goaltending has been a notch below last season's standard.

Not good signs.

Team president Larry Quinn is responsible for a good portion of the problems. It was his words and actions that have ultimately led to a sense of distrust between the organization and the community, and between the players and the people who employ them. New general manager Darcy Regier has to look at what happened to Muckler and wonder whether or not he'll be let go even if he does lower costs and provide a championship season.

New coach Lindy Ruff has to look at what happened to Nolan and wonder just how good he has to be in order to avoid having Quinn interviewing replacements in-season. He also has to wonder just how carefully he needs to handle any star player who might feel he would be better served if the coach were no longer with the team.

It's worse for Ruff because he knows he wasn't Quinn's first choice. It's tough enough replacing the coach of the year and the architect of a division championship without having to do it with a smaller roster, a makeshift training facility and a team at odds with itself. But it's tougher still to do it knowing that the boss wanted someone else.

It's different for the players, but the stakes are no less real. Players need to wonder about making a major commitment to a franchise that has a history of turning on its captains and better-paid players on a regular basis. LaFontaine is just one in a long line of dedicated players who were given the captain's "C" only to find themselves unceremoniously dumped when costs or even a difference of opinion got in management's way.

The players also can't help but notice the many unanswered medical questions surrounding the treatment of LaFontaine's knee (surgery performed by another team's doctor) and the clearance he got to play when specialists in concussion-related injuries now say he was most at risk.

The snarled contract situations haven't helped either. Michael Peca is a key performer on the Sabres' penalty-killing unit, checking line and, occasionally, the power play. Ruff has hinted that Peca is captain material, yet the development of all three units have been slowed because of Peca's absence. That time and leadership lost will be difficult to make up.

Alexei Zhitnik is also an important part of the Buffalo puzzle. Zhitnik was slated to be the offensive defenseman who could get the puck out of the Buffalo zone and be the go-to guy on the power play now that Galley is gone.

That's tough enough to overcome. But Zhitnik, who at times can be a defensive mistake waiting to happen, also was scheduled to attend a crash course in defensive fundamentals conducted by newly hired assistant coach Mike Ramsey. That opportunity also has been lost.

The question of where Miroslav Satan fits in is not quite so pressing, but it remains unanswered.

There are other lingering problems. Quinn's ability to run a hockey franchise is an open question. This is a franchise coming off its first division championship in 16 seasons and with six major postseason awards in its possession. Yet the Sabres haven't been able to capitalize on their success.

The team's marketing program has had to center around Gilbert Perreault, Joe Crozier and even Richard Smehlik's family because the Sabres couldn't use Hasek, the reigning Hart, Vezina and Lester Pearson trophy winner as the league's most valuable player, Nolan or the Selke Trophy-winning Peca. The Sabres might have been able to build something off the return of LaFontaine, but that opportunity is also lost.

So where does this troubled franchise go from here? Stay tuned.

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