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GOALTENDING, CENTER DEPTH HIGHLIGHT SABRE HOPES

It is easy to forget one important fact when discussing the 1997-98 edition of the Buffalo Sabres.

Almost all of the players on the team that won its first division title in 16 years are back.

The only major loss over the summer was defenseman Garry Galley, who left for Los Angeles as a free agent. Winger Ed Ronan, a spare part who contributed an overtime goal in the second-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, left as a free agent to become a San Jose Shark. Center Anatoli Semenov, who never fit in last season, was released. Defenseman Jason Woolley was acquired from Pittsburgh last week.

Otherwise, the roster will be more or less status quo once Michael Peca and Alexei Zhitnik (both restricted free agents) sign contracts. All of the uproar surrounding the team's ownership, front-office and coaching situations had little to do with the guys on the ice.

That means the 1997-98 Sabres will look a great deal like last season's squad. The scoring will be spread throughout the lineup, the team will be aggressive, and goalie Dominik Hasek will be asked to give Buffalo a chance to win in every game.

However, there will be a different face behind those players on the bench, as Ted Nolan was replaced by Lindy Ruff. Almost all of last season's team bought into Nolan's coaching techniques. This team isn't good enough to have a reduction in effort and still be successful. Ruff will have to be successful in getting the players to duplicate last season's work ethic in order to have a chance at winning another title in the weak Northeast division.

Here's how the Sabres look by position:

Center

The Depth Chart: Derek Plante, Brian Holzinger, Michael Peca, Wayne Primeau, Erik Rasmussen.

The Pat LaFontaine "situation" has been straightened out, which means this unit will look a lot like the group that played well last season. It should be noted that center was Buffalo's best forward position despite a lack of size and without LaFontaine's presence.

Plante and Holzinger are clones. Both are very fast, talented and small. They finished 1-2 on the team in scoring last season. Plante has to remember how to score on the road; he had 24 of his 27 goals in Marine Midland Arena. Holzinger has trouble in traffic but is dangerous if opponents give him skating room.

Give former Sabre general manager John Muckler credit -- he was right when he said Buffalo fans would learn to love Peca. The center battled bigger opposing centers all season, and did it well enough to win the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward. Peca also showed some offensive skills, as he was just one point behind the team's leading scorers in the second half of the season.

After that, there is youth. Primeau, who came up when the ineffective Semenov was hurt in the middle of the season, had some good moments, but showed only rare flashes of offensive ability. Rasmussen has a chance to be a star in the NHL. He has good size, good hands and a nice passing touch. Judging by training camp, he needs time in Rochester to adjust to the pro game.

Left Wing

The Depth Chart: Dixon Ward, Randy Burridge, Michal Grosek, Brad May, Miroslav Satan, Curtis Brown.

Is there a No. 1 left winger in the house? It doesn't look like it. The Sabres have a collection of useful pluggers and grinders, but Satan was the only 20-goal scorer in the bunch, and 17 of his 25 were scored for Edmonton.

Ward made last season's team because of Matthew Barnaby's contract squabble, and stuck around for the whole season. He showed he deserves to be an NHL player. Burridge has taken more than his share of bumps and bruises, but he's still a valuable player.

May would like to take an eraser and wipe out all memories of his 1996-97 season. Injuries either kept him out of the lineup or robbed him of his effectiveness. The rugged left winger will be a big part of the team if he can play as well as he has in past seasons. It's also the last year of a big contract, so this is a crucial season in his career.

Grosek and Satan are mystery men. Grosek often is excellent for a few games and then disappears for weeks. Ruff has to get some consistency out of him. Satan was the team's only goal-scorer down the stretch of the regular season. He went scoreless and was benched during the playoffs, a sign of what the coaching staff thought of his two-way play.

Meanwhile, Brown -- who has played on both wings in training camp -- looms in the background. He has some offensive talent but was inconsistent in an early trial last year. A big leap forward by the young winger would be a huge help for the team, and Brown showed in Rochester he is very capable of doing that.

Right Wing

The depth chart: Donald Audette, Matthew Barnaby, Jason Dawe, Rob Ray.

There's not much reason to change this group. Last season it supplied some scoring, some defense and some toughness, and there's no cause to assume anything will be different this time.

With LaFontaine gone, Audette is the top natural goal scorer on the team. He was healthy last season and led the team in goals with 28. It will be interesting to see how Barnaby does without Nolan around; the two were very close. The winger still should be one of the league's best pests.

Dawe never got enough credit last season for his defensive work. He spent most of the season on the checking line and still contributed 22 goals. Dawe's offense comes and goes, maddening coaches along the way. Nolan used Ray for more than fisticuffs last season and the veteran responded with the biggest contribution (seven goals) of his career.

Vaclav Varada could be brought up from Rochester in case of injury. He still needs some development. Ward and Satan both played on this side at times last season, and Ray has played a great deal on the left side.

Defense

The depth chart: Alexei Zhitnik, Richard Smehlik, Darryl Shannon, Mike Wilson, Bob Boughner, Jay McKee, Jason Woolley, Mike Hurlbut.

Galley is going to be missed. He was a smart veteran who added experience on the ice and leadership off it. He also led the team in assists, and his loss will affect a power play that already was the worst in the league last season.

McKee will be given every opportunity to take Galley's spot. He is going to be an excellent defenseman some day. Woolley's acquisition was a smart move by the team. He will help out on the power play, he adds depth to the position, and his presence means McKee faces less pressure to perform at the start of the season. That's a great many positives for the cost of a fifth-round draft choice.

Otherwise, it is business as usual. Zhitnik still isn't the smartest player in the sport, but he's the best defenseman on the team at carrying the puck up the ice and was much more consistent last season. His absence during the preseason showed the lack of speed on the rest of the defense.

Smehlik and Wilson don't take the body as well as they should, but assistant coach Mike Ramsey may help there. Wilson, in particular, needs to rebound from a case of the sophomore jinx. Shannon and Boughner remain dependable. In case of injury, Rumun Ndur and Sergei Klimentiev are a phone call away in Rochester.

Goalies

The depth chart: Dominik Hasek and Steve Shields.

No team is better in goal. Hasek was the most valuable player in the league, and he likes to play a lot of games. That should add up to a lot of good goaltending.

Shields' improvement during the past few years has been breathtaking. Buffalo fans no longer wince when he checks into the game, and he learned a lot from his playoff experience of last spring.

Depth beyond that is a question mark after Andrei Trefilov was waived Tuesday. Buffalo is breaking in rookie pro Martin Biron in Rochester and has Mike Bales there as insurance in case of an injury in Buffalo.

Outlook

If Buffalo has about the same roster returning, and the division is filled with unknown quantities, then why aren't the Sabres the popular pick to defend their division title? It's because there are all sorts of questions about the team that have little to do with the players. The effect of the new coach on the team is only one of them.

Will there be any aftereffects from LaFontaine's bizarre departure? Will the unsigned free agents miss a substantial portion of the season? Can Ruff rouse a dormant power play? Will new general manager Darcy Regier be allowed to acquire some help if the team needs it? How is Regier at recognizing talent? Has Hasek's relationship with the rest of the team been affected by the series of events surrounding last spring's playoffs and Nolan's departure? Will the public disagreements among the owners spill over into this season? Will some fans stay home because of the departure of Nolan and LaFontaine, leaving the franchise poorer in the bank?

Last year's team overcame a laundry list of distractions to rank as the biggest surprise in the league. But it will be tough to do it again. The Sabres will probably finish in second place in the division with about 85 points. That would be a small step backwards, perhaps, but understandable under the circumstances.

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