Following a season that featured enough plot twists and dark tidings for an Alfred Hitchcock film, the Buffalo Sabres seemingly approach the 2003-04 NHL season a much more stable franchise. With new ownership in place in the form of Rochester billionaire Tom Golisano, plus the infusion of offensively talented newcomers Chris Drury and Andy Delmore, there is certainly a more upbeat atmosphere surrounding the club than there was at this time last year.
Given the nightmare of a season that the team merely endured both on and off the ice, it might be logical to assume that the Sabres would have several roster spots up for grabs when training camp begins in St. Catherines, Ontario next Thursday.
That assumption may be a faulty one, however, since the Sabres are already one of the youngest teams in the NHL. At best, there may be two or three slots up for grabs in camp, with those openings being on the team’s third and fourth lines. The battle for those openings should provide most of the excitement during the preseason, and could provide the fans with a couple of fresh faces from the team’s prospect ranks.
Although the team’s prospect list swelled by several players at the NHL Entry Draft, General Manager Darcy Regier was not nearly as active in the prospect signing department this off-season. Last summer, the team signed seven prospects. This summer, only two youngsters, Derek Roy and Chris Thorburn, have thus far been signed.
Perhaps the most intriguing prospect in the Sabres system, 2003 No. 1 selection and University of Minnesota scoring star Tomas Vanek, will not be available until April at the earliest. Vanek has chosen to return to Minnesota for a chance at helping the Golden Gophers three-peat as NCAA champions. Vanek’s progress this season will be closely watched by team officials and fans alike, with another world-class performance by the young Austrian sure to drive up his negotiating value when contract talks finally commence.
One camp attendee who will draw some attention is 2000 first rounder Artem Kriukov. While it is difficult to say where Kriukov is in his development due to a lack of playing time the past three seasons, the general consensus seems to be that the Sabres could have made a wiser choice with that selection than the fragile Russian. There is a feeling that this could be a last chance for Kriukov to make a good impression with the Sabres hockey department, but the team is likely to give the big center more time to develop than the average prospect.
One prospect that will not be in camp, and in fact is no longer with the organization, is Sabres 2002 top pick Keith Ballard. The University of Minnesota defenseman was shipped to Colorado in the deal that eventually brought Drury to the Sabres. While Ballard undoubtedly is a player with some potential, his performance at the Frozen Four was largely uninspiring, a fact that may have made the decision of parting with Ballard a much less difficult decision.
So, while two of the Sabres most recent first round selections will not be attending the 2003 training camp, there should still be enough intrigue created by the youngsters that do take part to keep the fans interested. But which prospects have the right stuff to make the Sabres roster? That question will be dealt with in the next report from the Buffalo Sabres training camp!