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Sabres of future will stress defense Regier, Ruff will put team into goal-prevention mode

The Buffalo Sabres have decided to show an entertaining friend the door. As with most things in Sabreland these days, something has to go in order to get something else. There's no doubt it will be missed, but the Sabres really think the departure is for the collective good.

Chris Drury? Daniel Briere? Thomas Vanek? Is it one of them with an outbound ticket? That's too early to tell. Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier is just starting to decide their fates.

No, the thing that's leaving is the score-at-all-costs attitude that created the NHL's highest-scoring team and gave its fans 308 reasons to jump up and down.

The Sabres are confident the Stanley Cup can fill its void.

Regier and coach Lindy Ruff finally gathered Thursday to announce their new contracts and address the season that ended last month. It's clear they spent time contemplating why the Cup parade took place in Anaheim instead of Amherst and Allentown. They determined the reason they fell short of the town's objective was their over-reliance on goals.

"When we got into tough situations, we addressed it usually by trying to score our way out of the situation," said Regier, who signed a two-year extension. "Itworked for the most part in the regular season. I don't think it works that well in the playoffs. It's very difficult to score your way out in the playoffs.

"If we were to look at one area, let's figure out a way to prevent goals. I think it's more about preventing than it is about scoring."

Pulling back on a team that thrived going forward is a tough decision. The Sabres scored 308 times (including the goals awarded for shootout wins), and it drove them to the Presidents' Trophy as the regular-season's best team.

But, as Ruff and Regier painfully absorbed during their three-week evaluation period, that's not the trophy that matters. And if it takes a philosophical shift to get the one that creates legends, so be it.

"There's some areas defensively where we could be better," said Ruff, who signed a three-year deal with an option for a fourth. "We were a very good offensive team. When we played teams that were very good playoff teams, even down the stretch in the regular season, we had to make adjustments knowing this is probably the way you're going to have to win games. We saw it in the first two rounds. Playing the Islanders wasn't about offense, and playing [the] New York [Rangers] wasn't about offense.

"The playoffs, for the most part, was a low-scoring playoffs. Teams defended and played defense harder than they tried to score, and you can't try to counter that with just trying to score and give the other team opportunities. It's being a little bit more responsible."

Ruff was nominated for the Jack Adams Award for the NHL's top coach, but lost out to Vancouver's Alain Vigneault at the league's awards ceremony in Toronto Thursday. Ruff won the award last year.

No one is suggesting the Sabres will become a mirror image of the sit-back-and-trap New Jersey Devils. They should still, depending on free agency, have an attacking attitude with their talented personnel. But cutting down opponents' chances will be a priority.

It won't be the only one. Regier, Ruff and managing partner Larry Quinn touched on a long list of topics during their 34-minute chat, including:

*A need for improved special teams. The power play went just 11 for 87 (12.6 percent) in the playoffs, and the penalty kill ranked 29th at home during the regular season.

"I think it's an easy correction for our hockey club," Ruff said.

*Their strategy for signing free agents, a plan best described as unformulated.

"The guys that we'll look at first and foremost are the unrestricted players," Regier said. "You get to work on the process to understand where everybody from the players' side would like to be. Then things do happen quick."

*Whether it's possible to keep co-captains Drury and Briere.

"It still could happen," Regier said. "Things have to fit. It has to fit for them, has to fit for us."

*Contract talks with Vanek, a restricted free agent.

"I plan on talking to [his agent] Steve Bartlett," Regier said. "I don't know if it'll be before July 1 or not. He's a restricted free agent, he doesn't have arbitration rights, he certainly is open to offers from other teams. Whether or not that takes place, how we respond in the event it does take place -- it's part of the process."

*And, of course, the decision to stay in Buffalo. Quinn said Ruff and Regier accepted "substantially below" their market value to remain with the club.

"It was never an issue," Ruff said. "I really feel that we have one of the best hockey cities now. This is a fun place to play. It's a great place to coach. We've worked hard at getting it there. It hasn't been easy. It would be foolish to step away from it now."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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