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SABRES RAISE THEIR SIGHTS
PLAN COMBINES SUBTLE CHANGES, NEW URGENCY

Buffalo Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn made the goal clear and concise Wednesday while announcing General Manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff would be back next season. He wants the Sabres in the playoffs next April, and he wants them eventually contending for a Stanley Cup.

Quinn stopped short of delivering an ultimatum, but he suggested Regier and Ruff could be in trouble if the Sabres underachieve yet again next year. Now that they have their marching orders, Quinn and new owner B. Thomas Golisano said they would provide them with better players and stronger management so the Sabres can do their jobs.

"We've given them some very strong goals," Quinn said. "We gotta make the playoffs this year. We told them we want to win a Stanley Cup in three or four years. It's a very ambitious undertaking, we all admit, but we don't want to survive here. We want to win. We want to be prosperous, and we think we can do that."

The Sabres' plans for improvement include acquiring a few players who can help push them closer to the playoffs, developing young talent on a team that played well toward the end of the season, and providing more support for goalie Martin Biron. Basically, they will make subtle adjustments while keeping Regier and Ruff in place.

Buffalo added two players Wednesday, former second-round picks Derek Roy and Chris Thorburn. Roy is a small but gritty center who was among the best players in the Ontario Hockey League this season. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder was named most valuable player in the OHL playoffs and the Memorial Cup while playing for the Kitchener Rangers. Thorburn (6-3, 215) plays a more aggressive style.

Status quo could be a tough sell for a team that has finished last in the Northeast Division two straight seasons. The Sabres had two miserable stretches early last season and were essentially out of the playoff race before January. They had a 27-37-10-8 record last year and finished 12th in the Eastern Conference despite playing well down the stretch. All told, it was among the most frustrating seasons in club history. Attendance was the lowest in seven seasons in HSBC Arena.

"We spent quite a bit of time evaluating what we had and where we were going and, most importantly, how we can win," Quinn said. "From an analytical view, I think there were a lot of problems. Last year's record and performance, I think, was an embarrassment for the team, for the coach, everybody associated with the organization. Nobody ever wants to see that again."

Fans were calling for major changes from new ownership, and most scrutiny was directed toward Regier and Ruff. Regier had been vilified for Buffalo's roster, and Ruff had been criticized for the team's failure on the ice. With both men coming back, fans almost certainly want to see results before they follow them into the arena next season.

"Everyone here recognized this is a challenge," Regier said. "Lindy does as well. No one's backing away from it. No one's running. Everybody knows the criticism. Everybody knows about status quo. We're not going to run away, and we're not walking away. We're going to find a way to get it done. In seven months, come back and we'll talk."

Regier has four years remaining on his contract, which will be reviewed and could be restructured. Ruff signed a three-year contract that includes a slight cut in base pay from his $800,000 salary last season but includes more incentives. He considered seeking employment elsewhere with his contract set to expire in June but decided to return. If the Sabres have another miserable season, both he and Regier could be fired.

"You come back for one reason and that's to win," Ruff said. "I'm convinced with the relationship with Tom, Larry and Darcy that we can do that. We're here to win, and we're here to make this team successful. We've been through some tough times. Looking back on last year, I didn't want to leave on that note."

The Sabres' payroll dropped from $31.1 million to start the season to roughly $25 million after they traded away captain Stu Barnes, center Chris Gratton and wingers Vaclav Varada and Rob Ray while adding only Daniel Briere to their roster. They are planning to keep payroll around $30 million next season in anticipation of changes in the salary structure after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2004.

Buffalo will remain a cost-conscious team. The Sabres will attempt to win without high-priced stars but it can add about $5 million worth of talent through trades and unrestricted free agents. The Sabres are expected to dip into the free-agent market for a mid-level player who might cost them from $2 million to $4 million annually.

Regier said they would be pinpointing a forward who can play on one of their top two lines and a defenseman who can help them on the power play. Both should be available this summer, but they will come with a price. Fans will see how much the Sabres are willing to pay when the market opens in July.

"I don't know how it will play out," Regier said. "I can tell you there are clubs that historically added payroll but are now looking to cut payroll. It doesn't mean you take it on, but maybe you can make other arrangements. I think we're going to see a little bit of a different summer. Knowing you have X-amount of dollars and you're expected to make the playoffs, it's a great place to be. It's a much better place than floating."

The Sabres had a three-headed goalie system last year in Biron, Mika Noronen and rookie Ryan Miller. None was consistent enough to make a strong case for the No. 1 job. Noronen finished with the best goals-against average and save percentage among the three but spent much of the season changing places with Miller between Buffalo and Rochester. Biron often lost focus. Miller fought through inexperience.

All three are expected to remain in the organization through the summer unless some eye-popping deal is presented. Regier compared Biron's development with that two years ago of Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has been sensational in the playoffs. In 2000-01, Giguere was 11-17-5 with a 2.57 GAA. Biron had a 17-28-6 record with a 2.56 GAA this season.

"He's in the same age group and had the same type of record Giguere had in Anaheim (two years ago)," Regier said. "We expect that he can do that. Not only do we expect it, we have to facilitate it. We've gotta support him with a style of play that can help him accomplish that. It's a big area of the game today."
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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