Sabres Report: Dig the New Breed

By Ken McKenna

With all the doom and gloom that supposedly surrounds the Buffalo Sabres franchise, you would think that those in the team’s hockey department would be in fear of even setting foot outside the club’s offices at the foot of Washington Street. This line of reasoning would be wrong, at least with regard to the signing of draft choices, with Sabres GM Darcy Regier having been quite active in bringing some new talent into the fold.

The most prominent signing, as well as the most recent, is that of Ryan Miller, who could well be considered the best goaltender not playing in the NHL. Miller (6’2″, 160 lbs.) ended a stellar collegiate career with the Michigan State Spartans, finishing as the NCAA’s all-time leader in shutouts with 26. The most distinguished of the many awards he received during his time at MSU was the Hobey Baker Award he won in 2001, which signified Ryan’s performance as the top player in college hockey for that season. Miller’s “worst” save percentage in his 3 years at MSU was .932, which came in his freshman season, while his highest goals-against average was just 1.77.

Miller is slated to spend the 2002-03 season with the Rochester Americans of the AHL, but it will be interesting to see how well he performs in his initial NHL training camp. Ryan’s presence should bring out the best in Martin Biron and Mika Noronen, the two young goaltenders ahead of Miller on the depth chart, so it could be a frustrating camp for some of the offensive players on Buffalo’s roster.

Three of the Sabres’ signings could give the impression that the team will improve its depth at defense this season, but looks can be deceiving. The first of those defensive additions, Sean McMorrow (6’4″, 210 lbs.), spent a good portion of the 2001-02 season as a right wing. Sean has never been known to be strong defensively, but he is feared because of his main attribute, namely his fists. While his total of 170 PIMs doesn’t look out of the ordinary for the average OHL tough guy, the main reason for this modest total was the fact that few opposing players wanted to tussle with McMorrow. One scout even likened the big defenseman-turned-forward to Edmonton tough guy Georges Laraque, which is the type of large, menacing presence that Buffalo has lacked for many a year.

McMorrow will get his feet wet at the AHL level playing for Rochester, as might Ryan Jorde, another defensive addition from the junior ranks. Jorde (6’2″, 210 lbs.) split his 01-02 season between Tri-City and Moose Jaw of the WHL. The bulky rearguard is primarily a stay-at-home defenseman who is not afraid to bang some bodies, with his main weakness being a lack of foot speed. Ryan’s muscle would certainly be welcomed in Rochester, as will McMorrow, since last year’s edition of the Amerks seemed to be lacking in the toughness department. If Jorde fails to make the Amerks roster, however, he has indicated that he will return to the WHL as an overage player.

The third defenseman to sign with the Sabres, Radoslav Hecl, seems to be set on playing for Buffalo. While the terms of Hecl’s contract have not been released, he is on record as saying that he has little interest in playing in the AHL, and that he’ll return to Slovakia if he does not make the Buffalo roster. The stocky rearguard (6’1″, 196 lbs.) is best known for being proficient defensively in is own zone, but he does have some offensive ability. With the loss of Richard Smehlik to free agency, Hecl might be a good fit in the role of defensive defenseman, especially since he is a more physical player than Smehlik.

Toughness and character are two attributes that one of Buffalo’s signings at the forward position, Paul Gaustad, has in abundance. The big center (6’5″, 220 lbs.) has gone from being an unknown in his draft year, to being a solid prospect in the Buffalo organization. Paul wore the captain’s “C” for the Portland Winter Hawks last season, an honor he earned with his leadership skills. Gaustad’s offensive totals also improved dramatically in the 01-02 season, as he picked up 78 points in 68 games. The North Dakota native can play both center and left wing, so his versatility could help him to eventually make the next step to the NHL. For now, though, Paul will begin his pro career as a Rochester American.

The last of the new arrivals for 2002, Jason Pominville, represents perhaps the best offensive prospect Buffalo has brought into the fold since the signing of Maxim Afinogenov. Jason impressed enough in camp last year to get the Sabres’ coaching staff thinking, and he then followed with a breakout season for Shawinigan of the QMJHL. While Jason does not possess the outstanding speed that is Afinogenov’s trademark, Pominville may have a quicker shot release, as well as a better scoring touch, than Maxim. The Sabres certainly hope the slick right wing can create some offensive magic, if not this season, then certainly in the not-too-distant future.

All in all, the Class of 2002 appears to be a solid one for the Sabres. The team has added a good bit of toughness to the mix, as well as some scoring punch, and quite possibly a world-class goaltender. That isn’t a bad summer for team that is supposed to be on life support, with only faint signs of a pulse. Rather than being the Jack Kervorkian of NHL GMs, Darcy Regier seems to be bringing some much-needed life to a franchise in need of a good shot in the arm.