The long-term goal, Darcy Regier says, remains the same. The Buffalo Sabres' general manager wants his team to win a Stanley Cup. But Regier is also a realist. He knows the Sabres can't win the title if they don't make the playoffs, a disturbing trend that is two years running.
The quest to end that trend starts this week.
The Sabres will begin the 2009-10 season with training camp this week. Rookies and prospects will report to town Tuesday, while the veterans will arrive at HSBC Arena early Saturday morning. Fans can attend the first full-squad workouts at the foot of Washington Street starting at 9:30 a.m.
The Sabres are expecting 53 players at camp -- 31 forwards, 18 defensemen and four goaltenders -- and all are expected to have the same focus: finish in the top eight of the Eastern Conference.
"The long-term goal is to always win a Stanley Cup championship, and where we did not make the playoffs the last two years, that is the emphasis -- the playoffs," Regier said last week. "Then you do go from there. You build on that. But you're looking for individual growth and you're looking for team growth."
The Sabres are putting their faith in that growth, because the roster of players starting this season and is almost identical to the one that finished last season. The team made very few changes over the summer -- basically forward Mike Grier and defenseman Steve Montador were signed to replace forward Maxim Afinogenov and defenseman Jaroslav Spacek -- so Regier is hoping another year of disappointing experiences has taught his team well.
"I no longer consider us a young team," Regier said. "I think we're going to have some young players, some youth in and around our hockey club, but we're now talking about players that have a lot of NHL experience, a lot of, in most cases, playoff experience.
"You're in an area now where you're in your mid-20s to 30s, and the expectation with the age is maturity. Maturity is about a lot of things, but it's also necessary to make the playoffs and win championships."
The main focus of training camp will be three prospects: defenseman Tyler Myers and forwards Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy. Myers, the 6-foot-8 defenseman selected in the first round of the 2008 entry draft, will try to make the team as a 19-year-old after a stellar junior season. Gerbe and Kennedy will attempt to make the jump to the NHL after being named to the American Hockey League All-Rookie team last year.
"There's a lot of young players right now that are going to be working toward spots," Sabres captain Craig Rivet said. "We've got NHL-elite talent right now in the minors, so it's going to be a good push."
Added Regier: "I think there's a lot of player curiosity. I'm curious to see how players do. Maybe players on our team from a longer term, but not only those guys. I probably have a greater curiosity about players that played in Portland last season, players that played in junior last season or college, or even in Europe in some cases. You know at those ages there's a tendency to show quite a bit of growth. That will be good to see."
Competition is expected to be intense at both forward and defense because the Sabres simply have too many players capable of starting in the NHL. At least 16 forwards believe they can claim one of the 12 starting jobs, while as many as nine defensemen will try for the six blue-line spots.
"We do have a lot of players organizationally," Regier said, "but I think it's also going to be a year where you're looking at a schedule that is more compressed with the Olympics [in February], and my sense is we may well need a lot of players."
The theme of last year's camp was "start fast." The Sabres stumbled out of the gate in 2007-08, going 6-10-1. The emphasis on beginning well paid off last year as Buffalo started the season with a 6-0-2 run. But inconsistency plagued the team, and this year's theme will be to start well and remain at that high level throughout the 82-game season.
"You want to get off on the right foot," Rivet said. "It's a real long season. It seems like it goes in phases, and you just don't want to have too many downs. You just want to keep a real solid, even keel out there, work hard and progress as the season goes forward, play your best hockey at the end of the year."
The Sabres finished last season on a 7-2-1 run, but they still ended up in 10th place, two points out of the postseason. It made for a long summer, and the Sabres are glad it's finally about to end.
"When you're off for five months, it makes for a lot of time that you don't really want on your hands," Rivet said. "It's nice that we've got through that with a good summer of training. To come back here and start fresh again, it's a relief for the guys, and guys are really excited."