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RUFF QUESTIONS DUMONT'S CONDITIONING

J.P. Dumont was expected to be a major contributor to the Buffalo Sabres' offense this season. But he has gotten off to a sluggish start, and coach Lindy Ruff has been disappointed with the winger's approach.

"In J.P.'s case - and you hate to say it - it looked like a little bit of his problem is conditioning," Ruff said after Thursday's practice in HSBC Arena concluded with a series of sprints.

"We did some certain drills and even in the skate at the end, he was lagging. He's done some extra work, and we've been working on him in that area, but he's just a step behind."

Said Dumont: "That's what he thinks. I don't know. I think I feel good on the ice, and there's nothing I can do but wait for the next game and work hard in practice."

Dumont has a goal and an assist on 12 shots through seven games.

He dazzled Sabres fans early last season with 15 goals and 14 assists in his first 31 games. That, Ruff claimed, was a result of Dumont coming into his first Sabres training camp ready to play.

"You go back to the start of last year, and the one thing that was evident was J.P. was in fabulous shape," Ruff said. "I think this year he wasn't quite at that level, and it was something I addressed early in training camp. We put him through a lot of extra drills and extra work. But I still don't think he's (there)."

Despite playing on a line with center Tim Connolly and right wing Miroslav Satan, Dumont ranks 14th for the Sabres in average ice time at 14:34 a game. Dumont is not used on either the power-play or penalty-kill units.

"It's kind of hard to play with confidence, but I have two great linemates who are making it easier," Dumont said. "I wish I could have more points to help my team. . . . I just have to be ready to play five-on-five and be ready if they ever need me on the power play."

Conversely, Ruff has been impressed with the physical development of forward Denis Hamel, whose 2000-01 season ended 33 games early because of major knee surgery.

"I thought Denis skated as well (in Tuesday's 3-3 tie with Nashville) as he skated all year," the coach said. "He skated like he was close to the form he was at last year, where he was starting to warrant more ice time.

"There was confidence about being able to go full-bore and put yourself in situations where you may get hurt again. You've seen him play with a little more reckless abandon. He's got the legs moving. He's the first guy in on the attack all the time."

Hamel, the only forward other than Rob Ray to have played every game and not have a point, estimated he still is only 75 percent or 80 percent back to normal.

"The doctor told me it would take a year to get back to 100 percent," Hamel said. "So every day I think I'm getting better and better. I can't say it's perfect, but I feel good."

Ruff will be closely watching Dmitri Kalinin tonight. The young defenseman was benched for two games following a lackadaisical effort in last Friday's 4-2 loss at Detroit.

"I expect some fierce play and a lot of tenacity in his game, back to the Dmitri that throughout the better part of last year was the dominating rookie in the league and was noticed every shift," Ruff said.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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