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Sabres' Black hints at possible changes among 'core' players

Ted Black's usual smile and laidback attitude were on full display Saturday afternoon. Then the Buffalo Sabres' season got brought up. The smile disappeared. The pained look worn by most folks in Sabreland took over.

"It's a tough year," the team president said.

That summed up the obvious. The Sabres are 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference. They've won only four times in 18 games. The season is well on the way to becoming a lost one.

Black isn't quite there. After all, something good may eventually come out of the struggles. That's the hope, anyway.

"I wouldn't say that about any season [being a lost one] because you never know where the seeds of greatness are going to be planted," Black said. "So I wouldn't say it's a lost season because that would suggest somehow we're abandoning our efforts, and we're not."

Fans hoping for change at the top should abandon their efforts, though. For the umpteenth time, Black expressed his support for General Manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff.

"If this was a court reporter, I'd ask to read back the record on prior answers," Black said regarding his support for the NHL's longest-tenured duo.

The players may not be as safe.

"Our commitment is to winning, not to any particular group of players that are labeled as a core," Black said. "Take that for what it's worth."

Black, unlike others in the organization, did not pull out the injury excuse while discussing the struggles. Plain and simple, the players are not performing.

"Guys are just on pace to have career-low years in key categories such as goals," Black said. "If you had a team that had Lemieux, Gretzky, Orr and Howe, and imported their worst statistical years, you'd probably have a team that wasn't going to make the playoffs. There's no slight to those great players, the fact is every player has a career-best year, and every player has a career-worst year.

"Unfortunately, we've got a lot of guys that are on track to have their worst year on the same team in the same year. If you have too many guys that have below average or worse, you're just not going to win."

Black was in Ottawa for a board of governors meeting held in conjunction with the All-Star Game.

"These are typically 'lighter' agendas on All-Stars, so there wasn't a lot for us to deliberate or decide, quite frankly," Black said.

Some news did come out:

Next year's All-Star Game will be held in Columbus. The Sabres would like to host the event, the draft and another Winter Classic.

"John Collins [the NHL's chief operating officer] knows my desire to bring anything and everything to Buffalo," Black said. "This just wasn't the time or the place to have detailed discussions."

The league and the NHL Players' Association have been conducting informal chats about the collective bargaining agreement, which expires Sept. 15, but they have nothing formal planned.

"My hope is that we can reason together and that collective bargaining will be painless and quiet and quick," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "That would serve everyone's best interest."

Bettman is scheduled to talk with union leader Donald Fehr soon.

"There is this view that you have a big formal meeting with pictures of a dozen or two dozen people sitting around a table like the auto workers used to do, and somehow magically that signifies the kick off of something in a formal way and that the world is perfect," Fehr said. "That's largely untrue. We'll get to that at the appropriate time. This doesn't mean that there won't be a lot of work, a lot of conversations, a lot of discussion before and on an ongoing basis after that.

"You're getting into the second half of the season, you're getting into the playoff run and all the rest of it, and I have yet to meet a professional athlete that when their season is on the line didn't focus on that almost to the exclusion of everything else in the world, and these guys are no different."

The league said three groups are interested in purchasing the Phoenix Coyotes and keeping them in Arizona.

"I'm encouraged by the fact we still have interested purchasers who are spending money doing their due diligence and trying to structure a transaction," said Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. "Relocation is a last resort."

The NHL has advanced money to the New Jersey Devils, who are reportedly late on a debt payment and have squabbling co-owners.

"We're not a bank, we don't loan them money," said Daly. "We're advancing revenue streams that they're otherwise entitled to."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com