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Sabres' roster looks crowded up front Vanek may have company as newcomer to team

The Buffalo Sabres must do an awful lot of forward thinking.

While the three-way battle at goaltender will be the most provocative storyline of training camp, the Sabres also have a few significant decisions to make at forward as they hit the ice today in HSBC Arena for the first time since April 2004.

The Sabres enter camp with 13 established NHL forwards and a few prospects who might be ready to make their marks. Right now, the numbers add up to a surplus of skaters deserving of a big-league roster spot.

"Everyone who has looked or will look at the numbers knows that not everyone's going to make it," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said.
Although the loss of top goal scorer Miroslav Satan created one vacancy, the futures of a few veterans are in doubt.

Tim Connolly is said to be in wonderful shape but hasn't played an NHL game in 2 1/2 years; he lost a full season to a concussion and another to the lockout. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff singled out wingers Ales Kotalik and Taylor Pyatt as players "we really need to have step up in camp."

"Up front you're looking at two or three spots up for grabs," Ruff said. "There should be some pretty intense battles."

The upstarts are coming to camp two seasons more mature than the last time they competed for jobs.

Blue-chip winger Thomas Vanek appears ticketed for the big leagues after scoring 42 goals for the Rochester Americans last season. Ruff's introductory lines -- whatever those ever-changing trios are worth -- have Vanek with center Daniel Briere and right wing J.P. Dumont.

"He improved throughout the whole year and was a gamebreaker for them," Ruff said of Vanek, the fifth overall draft pick in 2003.

Vanek isn't the only forward who last season showed indications of NHL-readiness with the Amerks. Impressive preseason performances could help big center Paul Gaustad or timely winger Jason Pominville displace veterans.

Regardless of whether Gaustad or Pominville make the opening-night roster, the Sabres will run the risk of losing assets to waivers unless they make a trade. This will be the fourth pro season for Gaustad and Pominville, so each must clear waivers before he can be assigned to Rochester -- as would any NHLer either might supplant.

"We may be developing some players that end up being good players on other teams because we just have too many right now," Ruff said.

Gaustad and Pominville are taking the same approach to training camp. They peruse the roster and aren't sure where they'll be slotted. So they realize they must make a quick, positive impression on the ice to stay with the parent club.

"I'm coming into camp thinking I just need to play well," said Gaustad, a 6-foot-4, 229-pound North Dakotan who had 18 goals and 25 assists last season. "I'm not thinking about the depth chart or where I fit in or anything like that."

Ruff's preliminary lines have Gaustad skating between Pyatt and Adam Mair. Vanek was the only other prospect penciled in with two veterans. Pominville's opening linemates were Connolly and left wing Milan Bartovic.

"They got a lot of depth, a lot of players that played here before and deserve to be here," said Pominville, whose 30 goals for Rochester were surpassed only by Vanek. "It's going to be tough."

Players who spent the lockout with Rochester could have an advantage over those who skated in Europe. The Sabres' front office was able to heap its attention on the Amerks and directly influence individual instruction.

"As much as we have a lot of forwards -- too many forwards -- we have some unknowns," Regier said. "Some guys didn't play at all. Some guys maybe played in Europe. Some guys played a full year in the minors.

"That's something that we as a staff will watch as we go through training camp how that plays out. I'm not sure how it will play out."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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