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D-Day! Sabres lean on toughness

Column as I see ’em:

• There’s been talk of late about the Sabres’ search for a new identity. An hour into Sunday’s NHL draft, it was clear how this foundering franchise saw itself: as a team that desperately needed to get younger, bigger and tougher on defense.

They took big defensemen with their first two picks. At No. 8 overall, they grabbed Rasmus Ristolainen, a 6-foot-3, 201-pounder who spent the last two years playing with men in Finland. At 16, they added to a deep blue line by taking Nikita Zadorov, a 6-5, 225-pound hulk with a reputation as a physical two-way defender.

Darcy Regier conceded that he needed more toughness. It’s refreshing to know, after about 40 years or more, that the Sabres are finally committed to being tough to play against in their own end. After watching teams knock his guys around and dominate puck possession, even Terry Pegula knew something was wrong.

But two D in the first 16 picks? No one expected that. The crop of forwards in this draft was the deepest and most talented in a decade. Fans were hoping for at least one elite forward, even if it meant trading up in the first round to get him.

Now, at least, they have a direction. Wearing teams down and preventing goals is more important than scoring them. What do you suppose this means for Tyler Myers? He was seen as their franchise cornerstone. This comes off as a direct challenge to the underachieving Myers, or a sign he might be traded.

Defensemen generally take longer to develop, of course. That’s what they keep telling us about Myers. Now they have even more excuse to counsel patience with their fans. Just wait. In three or four years, we’ll have the toughest D in the NHL.

The next time someone does a Lucic on our goalie, there’ll be hell to pay!

Oh, Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek didn’t get traded. Regier told us it would be almost impossible to move up. He’ll wait to see how things shake out in the months ahead. Regier believes his bargaining position will improve, but we know what happens when Darcy digs in and feels teams are asking for the moon.

Some fans were miffed when the Devils traded for Vancouver goalie Cory Schneider. If Schneider could move, what about Miller? But Schneider is 27. Miller turns 33 next month.

• So much for the NCAA’s promise to crack down on scurrilous recruiting practices. The enforcement tough guys spent 27 months looking into Oregon’s football program and gave the Ducks a mild tap on the wrist: Three years’ probation and the loss of three (count ’em, three!) scholarships.

The NCAA also issued a showcase ruling against former coach Chip Kelly, who arranged a $25,000 payment to the infamous Will Lyles for a “scouting service.”

Evidently, it was one of those dubious scouting services that serve as conduits for coaches to funnel cash to street agents in return for recruits.

A cynic might wonder if Oregon’s light punishment had anything to do with Nike’s cozy relationship with the program. Nike President Phil Knight is an Oregon graduate. He donated $100 million to Oregon a few years back. Nike has lucrative shoe deals with countless Division I schools. Hmmm.

• Two huge NBA deals went down over the past week, and they appear to have a common objective: Keeping the superstar point guard happy.

The Clippers sent a first-round pick to the Celtics for the coach Doc Rivers. That’s a hefty price. But Chris Paul, soon to be a free agent, was unhappy with management.

He wanted to play for a top coach. The Clips got Rivers and Paul decided to stay. So think of it this way: The Clippers traded a first-rounder for Paul and a coach.

Meanwhile, the Nets made a multi-player deal with the Celts that brought Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn. Early last season, the Nets fired coach Avery Johnson after Deron Williams complained about the offense. This deal smells like a gesture by management to show Williams they’re serious about making a title run.

• Serena Williams is making a case as the greatest women’s tennis player of all time. But Williams is no fool. She knows she wouldn’t have a chance against Andy Murray, who tweeted recently that he would welcome a challenge match against Williams. Serena said it would be fun, but she doubted she’d win a point.

You know what would make more sense? John McEnroe challenging Williams to a match.

McEnroe turns 55 next February. Bobby Riggs was 55 when he challenged the top women in 1973. Riggs beat Margaret Court, then lost the famous “Battle of the Sexes” match to Billie Jean King in the Astrodome in September.

Could Serena beat McEnroe? I’d like her chances. And who wouldn’t tune in to see how McEnroe behaved?

• Orioles third baseman Manny Machado had 37 doubles in 82 games before Sunday night’s game at the Yankees. That put him on pace for 73 two-baggers, which would break the big-league record of 67 set by Earl Webb in 1931. No one has hit 60 doubles in a season since 1936. Machado turns 21 next Saturday.

There’s a lot to like about the O’s, who got little respect despite making the playoffs last season. They play great defense, which doesn’t make many highlights.

As of Sunday, they had 26 errors, the fewest in baseball and 20 below the MLB average.

• I’m sure the Spurs won’t be the favorite to get back to the NBA Finals next season. People have been writing them off for years. But don’t count them out yet.

Kawhi Leonard is a rising star and will be even better. They’ll be hungry after blowing it this year. If Tim Duncan is healthy and motivated, watch out.

• On Sunday, Inbee Park won the U.S. Open and became the second women’s golfer to win the first three majors in a season. The first was Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1950. Park, who won the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill last month, is the best golfer in the world right now, man or woman.