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SABRE LEADERS FACE TOUGH JOB IN GETTING TO 'THE NEXT LEVEL'

And so the Buffalo Sabres' hockey department's makeover is complete.

Six months after team president Larry Quinn started the process that led to the firing of general manager John Muckler, the ousting of head coach Ted Nolan and an internal bloodletting that rivals anything seen since the Middle Ages, the Sabres have a new general manager and a new head coach and the coach has his two assistants.

Holdover assistant Don Lever, added to the staff as an associate coach on Tuesday, joins new head coach Lindy Ruff, new assistant Mike Ramsey and new general manager Darcy Regier in the revamped hockey department.

So where do the Sabres go from here? Up would be nice, but the task will not be easy.

The feeling over at The Bank is the Sabres are now on an upward spiral.

Regier, although not as experienced in hockey matters as Muckler, is being portrayed as a solid acquisition with stronger skills in different areas.

Ruff is said to be the bright young coach well-schooled by masters.

Ramsey represents the honest blue-color work ethic the fans here love, and Lever is the link to the players and the team's popularity of last season.

If one subscribes to the theory that change is good, then the remanufactured hockey department is the best thing since someone paired ice cream with cones.

Reality tends to be a tad harsher.

Thrown immediately into a hellish line of fire by Quinn, Regier went without the normal honeymoon period of most new hires.

Were it not for Quinn, Regier would likely be the most unpopular sports figure in Buffalo just for not re-signing Nolan. His stated goal of healing the organization and its relations with the fans will not be easy. Worse, there's little time to do it.

Some fans may look at the Sabres as an organization that has put chaos to rest. Yet training camp is just six weeks away and the GM and the three coaches have yet to be in the same room.

The fact is the Sabres have ability, and Regier seems to have a talent for creating harmony in an organization. So far Regier has shown himself to be a man of integrity, a reasonably good communicator and an extremely hard worker.

Will that make the team better? In the short haul, probably not.

Regier still has the same financial handicaps Muckler had. He has to overcome the loss of veteran defenseman Garry Galley while working even more youth into the lineup. Along the way, he has to create a chemistry with Ruff while finding ways to contain Quinn.

Topping it off is the Dominik Hasek "problem" -- a situation that still threatens to tear the team and the organization apart -- and the road isn't just long, it's hard.

Ruff and the coaching staff face similar problems. The Hasek-vs.-rest-of-team rift is really Ruff's to solve. The coaches also need to find a way to manufacture more offense while cutting down on the amount of time other teams spend in the Buffalo zone.

Ruff has to find a quarterback for the power play out of a cast that features the enigmatic Alexei Zhitnik, the physically hampered Richard Smehlik and the still unproven Mike Wilson and Jay McKee.

Up front Ruff needs to develop a go-to scorer for his power play while improving on a balanced but limited offense that still may or may not have Pat LaFontaine.

Ruff also needs to do all the things Quinn and others claimed Nolan couldn't. That means the power play has to be better, puck-possession time has to be better, shots against have to be lower, penalty killing has to be improved, more faceoffs have to be won and more systems have to be in place.

All this needs to be done while Ruff wins more games, garners more points and takes the team to that elusive "next level" that Nolan was supposedly incapable of achieving.

Tough enough in a vacuum but Ruff has the added burden of achieving it while fans -- at least the ones who haven't canceled season tickets -- look over his shoulder with a "show-me-you're-better" attitude. Good thing the Sabres' first three games are on the road.

In the big picture, the Sabres would like the new people judged on their merit and given the time to get over the rough spots en route to building a better hockey club.

That would be fair and reasonable had the fans demanded change. The last time anyone looked there was no hue and cry to get rid of Muckler or Nolan.

Quinn made the decision to change things and he'll have to live with the consequences and expectations that come.

After all, if the team isn't better, what was the reason for making changes in the first place?

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