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Inside the Sabres: Buffalo's expansion team had its share of stars, victories

The expansion team is the talk of the town. The goaltender will go in the team's Hall of Fame. They'll build a statue for the high-scoring center.

It sounds like Vegas, but it happened in Buffalo.

As the Golden Knights captivate the NHL behind goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and center William Karlsson, it's a chance to look back at the first Sabres team of 1970-71. There are similarities, though Vegas will be hoping more guys stick around.

Not surprisingly, the expansion draft was the key to building the Sabres. Of the 34 players who dressed during the opening season, 14 came from the expansion draft. General Manager Punch Imlach traded for nine others, selected five in the interleague and reverse drafts, and claimed three off waivers. The other three came from the amateur draft, including star center Gilbert Perreault.

The Sabres went 24-39 with 14 ties. They finished fifth in the seven-team East Division and a respectable ninth in the 14-team league.

"It wasn't bad," Sabres equipment manager Rip Simonick, who has been with the team since its founding, said Friday. "Punch Imlach, he went with all the guys that had credentials, had won the Stanley Cup and had some background in winning. That was the key for Punch.

"His main goal, it was said from Day One: 'We're in this to beat Toronto.' That was our main goal. I don't think that's gone away."

Though Perreault is fittingly referred to as the Original Sabre, it's technically not true. He was actually the 29th player to join the organization.

The NHL held the interleague and reverse drafts (players from minor leagues) on June 9, 1970. The Sabres selected defenseman Hap Myers and forwards Cliff Schmautz, Kevin O'Shea, Bill Inglis and Brian McDonald. They also claimed goaltender Joe Daley on waivers.

Things got busy the following day with the expansion draft. The Sabres picked forward Tom Webster first overall and traded him to Detroit for goaltender Roger Crozier, who is in the Sabres' Hall of Fame.

Of the 20 players picked in the expansion draft, the 14 who played during the first season were forwards Gerry Meehan (who later became GM), Brian Perry, Phil Goyette, Don Marshall and Skip Krake, and defensemen Al Hamilton, Doug Barrie, Reg Fleming, Jim Watson, Tracy Pratt, Francois Lacombe, Paul Terbenche, Jean-Guy Lagace and Mike McMahon.

The NHL held the amateur draft June 11, 1970. The Sabres selected Perreault with the No. 1 pick. Second-round selection Butch Deadmarsh and fourth-round pick Randy Wyrozub joined Perreault as forwards on the inaugural team.

Imlach later added goalie Dave Dryden, defensemen Jean-Guy Talbot and Terry Ball, and forwards Ron Anderson, Larry Keenan, Dick Duff, Eddie Shack and captain Floyd Smith through trades.

Inside the Sabres: Simonick still letting it rip

Perreault started his Hall of Fame career by winning the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. He led the Sabres with 38 goals and 72 points in 78 games, and he was second with 34 assists.

Shack became the fan favorite after being acquired from Los Angeles. Backed by the soundtrack of "Clear the track, here comes Shack," the forward had 25 goals, 42 points and 93 penalty minutes in 56 games.

"The fans loved him," Simonick said. "He could play and he was tough. He was an irritator. He was like a Brad Marchand is for Boston. He could irritate guys, but he was skilled. He could go end-to-end."

Meehan (24), Marshall and Atkinson (20 each) also reached the 20-goal mark. Goyette led the team with 46 assists. Crozier played 44 games in goal while Daley played 38.

"One of the things that hurt us was Roger was a sick, sick person," Simonick said. "He had pancreatitis. He couldn't play a lot."

The Sabres held their own in Memorial Auditorium. They were 16-13-10 at home and 8-26-5 on the road.

"We had a lot of veterans that knew what it was about," Simonick said. "If you look at their roster for the first year compared to the second year, they just wanted to be competitive. They had Dick Duff, Phil Goyette, Jean-Guy Lagace. We had a lot of old, old players."

There were eight players over age 30 during the first season. It was down to three by the end of the second season, with two of them (Smith and Duff) combining for just 14 games. The switch to youth took a short-term toll. The Sabres slipped to 16-43-19 in 1971-72.

Of the 34 players on the original roster, only 15 were still around by the end of the second season. Just nine (Crozier, Dryden, Pratt, Terbenche, Atkinson, Meehan, Deadmarsh, Perreault and Wyrozub) played more than two seasons in Buffalo.

In 1974-75, in just their fifth season, Perreault, Crozier and the Sabres advanced to the Stanley Cup final. Perreault later joined Crozier in the Sabres' Hall of Fame. Rick Martin and Rene Robert joined Perreault on a scoring line and a "French Connection" statue outside the arena.

Vegas is on track for the same kind of history-making love affair.

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