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Sabres turn to their core players Team's leaders ready for expanded roles

Tim Connolly played two games last season. He'll be the Buffalo Sabres' No. 1 center this year.

Paul Gaustad was a machine and fan favorite in the middle of the fourth line. He'll have to prove he can man a scoring unit and win key faceoffs.

Maxim Afinogenov has always been content to let teammates talk for him. People will now demand his comments because he's the longest-tenured Sabre and most creative player.

The image of the Sabres changed drastically last week when Daniel Briere and Chris Drury found new homes. The essence of the team will be altered this fall. That's when the players who remain will be forced to replace the co-captains on and off the ice.

"You've got some young players that obviously we are going to look to mature and fill that void," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said over the weekend. "We've got some players that have been around, that have a number of years under their belt. We've always said that that core group inside the room was a strong core. I said it's going to be tough to replace, but we're going to have to ask other young players to step in and fill bigger roles."

On paper, the Sabres still have the talent to be a playoff team. Talent can only do so much. The Sabres will need players willing to carry the others when adversity inevitably finds HSBC Arena.

There are guesses as to who that will be, but it's a fact many Sabres believe those players will show themselves.

"Now it's an opportunity for some other guys to step up and play a bigger role," Sabres forward Andrew Peters said. "I think as a group we have to take what Danny and Chris gave us and taught us as far as leadership goes, and everyone's got to kind of chip in and be a leader in their own way. We can't just rely on two guys. It's got to be 23 guys.

"When you lose two players like Chris and Daniel, you know you're losing two outstanding hockey players. I keep touching back on the fact that we have some great guys that are going to be in the spotlight now and are going to shine. Derek Roy and Maxy, these guys are going to be our leaders. Thomas [Vanek]. It's still going to be a great, great hockey team. The core is there, so we're very excited. And we've got Ryan Miller in net, so it's a great opportunity for everyone."

Miller will no doubt become the leading voice in the dressing room. He began to establish himself as the keynote speaker last season, and he has the confidence and demeanor to take charge.

Goalies, however, cannot be captains. Skaters will have to assert themselves, too. There are signs many can, but there are an equal number of questions as to whether they can do it with the effectiveness of Drury and Briere.

The most dynamic players remaining are Connolly, Vanek and Afinogenov. Will the Sabres ask Connolly, who missed most of last season with a concussion, to stand firm in the room while he skates around people on the ice? Vanek is just 23 and still learning to be a pro, despite his contract and production. Afinogenov has never had to be accountable at all times.

The most respected veterans are Teppo Numminen, Jochen Hecht, Brian Campbell, Adam Mair, Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder. Numminen was the assistant captain, but can the 39-year-old relate to players young enough to be his sons? Hecht, Lydman and Tallinder -- like Numminen -- have quiet, laid-back personalities; would they become more assertive? Mair stands up for his team at all times in all situations, but he is hampered by a lack of playing time. Campbell is forthright.

The emerging players are Roy, Gaustad, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford and Ales Kotalik. Gaustad, in particular, has the temperament to be a captain. But are any of them ready and able to jump from supporting actors to leading roles?

There are on-ice questions, too. Vanek and Roy have played together for most of the past two seasons, but shouldn't the top center (Connolly) skate alongside the top winger (Vanek)? Can Pominville remain a 30-goal scorer without Briere setting him up? Who takes the key faceoff with seven seconds left that Drury prided himself on?

The Sabres are eager to find out.

"I'm excited about next season," Peters said. "I'm excited about being competitive, and I don't think that we should settle for anything less."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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Sabres? depth chart

*Left wing

Thomas Vanek

Jochen Hecht

Ales Kotalik

Daniel Paille

Andrew Peters

*Center

Tim Connolly

Derek Roy

Paul Gaustad

Adam Mair

*Right Wing

Maxim Afinogenov

Jason Pominville

Drew Stafford

Michael Ryan

*Defensemen

Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Brian Campbell, Teppo Numminen, Jaroslav Spacek, Dmitri Kalinin, Nathan Paetsch

*Goaltenders

Ryan Miller, Jocelyn Thibault

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