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UNRESOLVED CONTRACTS THREATEN TO UNDERMINE SABRES' CHEMISTRY

So, today is the first day of autumn. The start of a new NHL regular season is just eight days away. Eight days! What happened to the summer? I don't even remember it beginning. I vaguely recall a puck deflecting off Brett Hull's skate, and then everything turns to black.

"It was a long weekend, I guess," said defenseman Jason Woolley. "That's what the whole summer seemed like -- a long weekend."

The Sabres have been in camp for two weeks. It's hard to believe they'll play for real in a little more than a week. Watching them skate at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday, your mind flashed back to the spring, to the Stanley Cup finals run.

Rob Ray was snapping his head in that distinctive way of his. Michael Peca was running people into the boards. Michal Grosek looked large and blissful, as always. Dixon Ward was making wisecracks.

But it wasn't so much who was on the ice as who was not. There was no sign of Miroslav Satan. No Curtis Brown. Both halves of the rising young defensive pairing, Jay McKee and Rhett Warrener, were missing. You searched the ice in vain for the rugged, mischievous Vaclav Varada.

Generally, these things get settled at the last minute. But for now, five key players, all 25 or younger, are holding out for larger contracts. They're also withholding a significant slice of the Sabres' young identity as the team prepares for a new season.

"I haven't had much time to think about where the other guys are," said Woolley, whose contract dispute was resolved by an arbitrator who awarded him a surprisingly low salary. "But now that you mention it, we're missing some guys who are a key component to our puzzle."

Buffalo made it all the way to the sixth game of the finals last spring. Expectations are high. Fans expect nothing less than another spirited run at the Cup in the final year of Dominik Hasek's career. You'd think the next seven months were nothing more than a high-priced formality.

But every season brings something new. Whether the players change or not, every team develops its own identity. The Sabres have the talent and the will to make another run at the Cup, but if any of their most important players hold out for very long, it could take a while for this team to find itself.

"You do worry that it could happen," said Peca. "The guys here have to do the job; we're still paid to win hockey games. But you still worry that you're going to miss those guys in certain situations. "

That's why fans ought to be feeling a bit uneasy right now. Free agents are holding out all over the league, but no NHL team is missing so many of its best players as the Sabres are.

A year ago, the Sabres got off to a good start and were leading the league in winning percentage by New Year's. They went into a miserable slump and finished only seventh. Without such a big cushion, they might have missed the playoffs altogether.

So October is an important time. You want to get off to a good start and position yourself near the top of the league. It helps if your team is reasonably intact. You have to wonder if the holdouts, combined with the ridiculously short offseason, will make it hard for them to get quickly out of the gate.

"The summer went remarkably fast," said coach Lindy Ruff. "I'm not going to kid you. But the players understand that October does matter. You've got to make sure you get in the playoffs. Last year's start helped us withstand that roller-coaster ride we went through in January, February and March."

In his first two years as coach, Ruff has done a marvelous job of nurturing a young team, of developing team chemistry and character. Those qualities were strained last year when the organization played tough with holdout Donald Audette. They don't need to go through something that divisive again.

"Chemistry is the biggest part of this team," said Geoff Sanderson. "You've got Varada, who is a huge part of Peca's line. Miro scored 40 goals. Curtis is a great two-way player. You have Warrener and McKee. Our team is structured around defense, so that's where it'll hurt us most. And chemistry."

We'll find out soon enough how intact they'll be for the opener, and how ready they'll be to defend the Eastern Conference title.

Just tell me how it got here so fast.

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