Lindy Ruff likes the look of his players. No, not how they appear on the ice, although that's not bad. Rather, it's the actual looks emanating from their eyes that have Ruff relishing the start of the year.
The Buffalo Sabres' coach absorbed last season as a personal embarrassment. It was humbling to watch teams compete for the Stanley Cup while he and his squad sat on their couches. He spent the summer hoping the players felt the same twinges of disappointment and regret.
When he talks with them, he sees they do.
"We had a winning year last year, but it wasn't a playoff year," Ruff said of the 10th-place campaign that featured a 39-31-12 record. "In my book, winning is calculated by being able to play past the regular season. We didn't quite make it, and the character part of this is you learn from your disappointments.
"We need all our young players to learn that not making it is something that's unacceptable. When you talk to most of them, you see that in their eyes."
Missing the playoffs again is not an option. Owner Tom Golisano said he'd chew on a microphone if the Sabres didn't finish in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. It's clear he's not the only one with an appetite for the postseason.
"Players are bothered most by not making the playoffs," forward Ales Kotalik said. "It's in everybody's head over the summer: 'What should I do better? What should I do different to help the team more, to help the team get to the playoffs?' I think every player has it in mind, and I think everybody's going to be hungry."
The Sabres were fourth in the NHL in scoring last season and first the year before. They have the talent to be among the leaders again.
The heart of the top line remains center Derek Roy and left wing Thomas Vanek, who combined for 68 goals and 145 points. Drew Stafford and Maxim Afinogenov will compete at right wing, a spot neither could grasp last season. Both need to improve.
Daniel Paille, who surprised many by scoring 19 goals, earned a bump in status and will start alongside center Jochen Hecht and right wing Jason Pominville. They are the team's two best all-around players, guys who can score and defend equally well.
Kotalik's 23 goals will anchor the third line, but what matters most is the health of Tim Connolly and Paul Gaustad. Connolly is as talented as they come, but he can't stay in the lineup. Gaustad will miss at least the first month of the season after undergoing thumb surgery.
The potential exists for scoreboard-lighting nights. But the point of training camp was to teach the forwards that keeping the puck out of their net is just as important as putting it in the other net.
"This team has shown in the past that they can score goals," defenseman Craig Rivet said. "Maybe a little more focus on the defensive side of the game is really going to propel this team to the next level."
Of the six defensemen expected to start Friday against Montreal, half weren't with the team last opening night.
Rivet's resume suggests he'll supply what the Sabres have often lacked, an ample amount of grit and toughness. He also had 35 points with San Jose last season, so he can hurt people at both ends.
Teppo Numminen is back after missing all but the season finale last year because of heart surgery. The team missed his leadership, experience and poise. Blue-liners made mistakes Numminen just doesn't make, and they'll follow his simple style of play.
Andrej Sekera finished his rookie season with a flourish, and the smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman will get the chance to show he can play five-on-five and with the man-advantage.
Jaroslav Spacek is a steady, all-around force. Bounce-back seasons are expected from Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman. Nathan Paetsch and rookie Mike Weber will be called upon, too.
"Depth on defense is something that's real important because we know that previous years we typically use nine or 10 defensemen," Ruff said.
It is Ryan Miller's team. The Sabres just hope it's not always his net.
Miller played a team-record 76 games last year. If he matches that mark, it means something has gone terribly astray. Veteran Patrick Lalime was signed to back up Miller, and the plan is for him to get 25-30 appearances.
Ruff has a history of losing faith in backups, so Lalime will have to prove he can be trusted right away. A start like last season would do it. He opened the year in Chicago with a 4-1 record and .904 save percentage. He finished with 16 victories.
But most of the chores will fall to Miller, who has shown he can lead a team in the playoffs with back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference finals a few years ago. The 28-year-old feels he's just entering his prime.
Actually, most of the Sabres are making that ascension from "young guy" to "established player." It's why their eyes are focused on the postseason.
"As guys get a little bit older, they start to understand that it's a lot of the little things that add up in hockey to get the job accomplished, to get the two points," center Adam Mair said. "It's the difference between maybe sacrificing 10 individual points but gaining 10 points in the standings.
"Right now, we're looking to do good things in this locker room."
>FIVE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Defense acquired what it was missing: There were too many cracks in the blue line last year. Craig Rivet and Teppo Numminen are the cement to fill those crevices. Rivet adds the toughness the Sabres have long sought, and as a bonus he has the offensive skills to fit into Buffalo's mobile blueprint. Numminen's calming presence should eliminate the panic that occasionally filtered into the defensive zone.
2. My, how you've grown: The Sabres are a year older but, more importantly, they seem a year wiser. They needed to mature, and they're talking as if they have. To them, points now mean numbers in the standings rather than numbers on the score sheet. It's a good start.
3. Crease should be ironed out: Patrick Lalime had a solid training camp, hopefully showing coach Lindy Ruff he can be trusted to play. And by play, that means 25-30 games, not 8-10. Ryan Miller has proven he's a franchise goalie when he gets rest, so a true crease combo -- which the team didn't have last year -- would do wonders.
4. They've had a long time to think about it: The Sabres haven't played a meaningful game since April. Sitting home and watching 16 other teams compete for the Stanley Cup stung, and many were embarrassed. Expect them to be eager to feel good about themselves again.
5. Max can't be that bad again, can he? Maxim Afinogenov has the talent to help the team win. Last year, he had the miscues to help the team lose. If he returns to previous form, that point swing will make a difference.
>FIVE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Speed may no longer kill: The season started in Europe last weekend, and warning bells rang across North America. The opening games were low-scoring affairs. Coaches have figured out how to defend in the not-so-new NHL, which could be bad for Buffalo. The Sabres know how to win high-flying games, but they haven't shown they can master a 2-1 contest.
2. Parity creates bubble trouble: Only 14 points separated fifth place from 12th last season in the Eastern Conference. It could be closer now. Even if the Sabres are improved, they could be fighting several teams for a postseason spot down the stretch. Their last seven games will be played in an 11-day span, so that could force their playoff bubble to burst.
3. Same team, same result: On any given night, the Sabres can dress 17 of the same 20 guys they used last season. If those players weren't good enough last year, they might not be good enough to make it this year, either.
4. Do they need Soup with that? The power play finished in the middle, ranking 14th with an 18 percent success rate. But it connected on just 16.1 percent after Brian Campbell was traded, and that would have ranked a paltry 24th. Can Andrej Sekera, Craig Rivet or a healthy Jaroslav Spacek replace him?
5. Tim Connolly needs to stay healthy: The Sabres have three scoring centers when Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht and Connolly are in the lineup. With scoring expected to be down, another extended absence by the talented center would be felt more than usual.
-- John Vogl