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It's pleasing to know that for the umpteenth time most of the Buffalo Sabres "appear to be in good shape" as they reported to training camp, that the franchise is looking forward to meeting the "higher expectations" that come from going deep into the playoffs and that the club was able to get Rob Ray to sign a new contract after losing out in the bidding for Ron Francis.

What hasn't been answered as the Sabres prepare for the 1998-'99 season are the following:

Who's going to be the No. 1 center?

There's a reason the Sabres went after Francis. He's an experienced playmaker who not only scores, but makes any linemate a more productive forward. Francis reads the ice. He doesn't just react, he creates. A No. 1 center is the player a coach throws over the boards when he absolutely must make something happen. The Sabres wheeled Derek Plante, Michael Peca and Brian Holzinger through that spot over the last two years. Peca has come closest, but none has made it his own.

There's a chance someone can take a firm hold on the job in this camp, but if not, it's a need that must be addressed by going outside.

Are the Sabres tough enough?

They certainly were two years ago when they terrorized the league, but Brad May was the emotional leader of the physical players on the squad and he was sent west for Geoff Sanderson. Rob Ray is an aging warrior who doesn't get on the ice beyond fourth-line situations. Paul Kruse is a willing participant but seems to be relegated to the same spot duty Ray gets. The loss of Bob Boughner to the expansion Nashville Predators leaves the Sabres' defense with no intimidating presence on the blue line.

The Sabres are pushing Jay McKee and Rumun Ndur as tough defensemen but Ndur's skills appear to be short of NHL caliber. McKee has some physical presence, but is young and has shown little in that area. He seems more intent on becoming a playmaking defenseman rather than a punishing one. Mike Wilson has size but almost no strength and seemingly no taste for the physical part of the game.

McKee could grow into the role if he accepts it. Ndur's willing, but is a poor skater and with new rules that emphasize skating, it may be tough for him to land a roster spot. The Sabres could catch a break with Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, nicknamed "The Rock." He's big (6-foot-3, 207), he's strong and he doesn't shy away from the tough stuff. Whether or not he's NHL ready is one of the key questions of this camp.

Whoever takes the job will be hard pressed to fill Boughner's leadership role. He was an integral part of the team's positive chemistry last season, on the ice and in the locker room.

Should Michael Peca continue as captain?

Peca held out at the start of last season and that certainly affected his game, but it doesn't explain away the fact that he struggled late in the season and in the playoffs.

The rigors of a lengthy season are harsh and Peca appeared worn to a nub by the time the playoffs rolled around. The burden of having to be the team leader, as well as the liaison between the players and the coaching staff and the players and management, did not make his on-ice life any easier.

Some people tend to forget Peca has just completed his third full season. He's feeling his way, just like Wilson, McKee and so many other young Sabres.

Peca also ran into some chemistry problems in the locker room last season, one of which was not moving his wedding date to accommodate the playoffs. That might seem petty when viewed from the outside, but little things become magnified in the close quarters of a locker room.

One of the things the Sabres liked about Francis was that he was a captain, a leader and a Stanley Cup champion. The young Sabres, Peca included, could learn a lot from a player like that. Veteran leadership is also one of the reasons the Sabres have brought Randy Cunneyworth in for a look-see at training camp.

Does Dominik Hasek need a challenge?

Hasek has been one of the most motivated athletes in the history of the Sabres and in all of sports, but that was then and this is now. With four Vezina trophies (best goaltender), two Hart trophies (MVP) and two Pearson trophies (MVP by a vote of the players), a long-term, multi-million dollar deal in his pocket and an Olympic gold medal around his neck, what's left to drive this guy?

The Stanley Cup is the one thing Hasek still lusts for, but that doesn't come around until spring. One of the things that snapped Hasek out of his early-season funk last year was that Steve Shields had become a crowd favorite. Hasek fought back to prove he was the best, and that carried on through the rest of the season, but Shields isn't here anymore and it's not likely Dwayne Roloson will mount any serious challenge.

Even if Hasek doesn't stumble, there's still a question as to whether or not the Sabres are strong enough at the position. Shields stepped up and won a playoff series for the Sabres when Hasek was out of the lineup two seasons ago. Roloson's NHL experience is limited and Martin Biron's is virtually nonexistent.

Are the Sabres ready for the new rule changes?

There will be more room behind the net and less room in the neutral zone. Is this a good thing? The Sabres generated many of their goals the last two seasons by using their speed through the neutral zone. Will lack of skating room there hurt? Doesn't moving the nets out from the dasherboards put a premium on players who can play in the high traffic area in front of the net? Playmakers are going to want to set up behind the net and feed the puck to forwards who hold position in front. That was the weakest point of the Sabres' offense last season. They had no down-low game.

Attacking is one outstanding question, but what about defending? Buffalo's defense was most vulnerable to teams that could take the puck to the net one-on-one, or cycle the puck in the corners and then bull their way to the net. The small forwards were overrun and the defense was often at a physical disadvantage.

There are a lot of questions to be answered in this camp.

On the road again

The New York Islanders are in such disarray that they've moved out of the Nassau Coliseum (claiming it's unsafe) and are threatening to play all their home games on the road.

Among the sites listed by the Islanders are Madison Square Garden (good luck on getting 41 home dates there), the Hartford Civic Arena (a three-hour drive in light traffic) and the old Spectrum in Philadelphia (already booked by the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate).

Why not see if Mario Lemieux has a garage they can rent?

The Islanders want a new building, but the root of their problem is with management in the old building. The dispute is so intense the NHL is looking into the matter.

State Supreme Court Judge Burton Joseph will hold a hearing on the issue Wednesday. This past week, at the request of Nassau County, Joseph issued a temporary restraining order barring the team from playing elsewhere until he can hear arguments from both sides.

Among the many issues is one regarding safety. It seems the club wants to install a new $2 million scoreboard but claims the cable structure there is unsafe. The NHL is slated to send its engineers into the building to make a determination. The Islanders claim building managers refused admittance to their engineers.

Ticket packages in the mail

The Sabres expect to mail season ticket packages to season-ticket holders the first week of October.

In the interim, John Sinclair, the Sabres vice president for ticket sales and operations, said the club has already mailed out tickets for tonight's lone home preseason game. Season-ticket holders get that game for free and are entitled to purchase additional tickets for the game at a discounted price. Game time is 7 p.m.

Habs have holdouts

The Sabres are far from being the only NHL team with big name players staying out of camp in contract disputes.

In Montreal, No. 1 center Saku Koivu is staying away, along with wingers Martin Rucinsky and Brian Savage and defenseman Vladimir Malakhov. All are restricted free agents still negotiating new contracts.

Winger Shayne Corson, who has two years remaining on a five-year contract, is holding out for a raise and a contract extension. Defenseman Stephane Quintal has a severe tooth infection and may be out of action for three weeks.

Factor in departed players Andy Moog, Marc Bureau, Peter Popovic, Zarley Zalapski and Sebastien Bordeleau and the Canadiens are missing 12 of the 20 players who dressed for the playoffs against the Sabres last spring.

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