With the Buffalo Sabres positioning themselves as a team that is building for the future, the expectation going into the season was that there would be several rookies gracing the lineup over the course of the season. Indeed, the Sabres did find occasion to use seven rookies during the 2003-04 season, with three of them having at least some impact, and the other four dropping in for a cup of coffee.
The most prominent rookie to skate for the Sabres this past season was 2001 second round pick Derek Roy. Roy had signed with the team at the NHL signing deadline last year, with the expectation having been that the stocky center would spend his first season learning his craft with AHL affiliate Rochester. A solid performance by Roy in the preseason nearly changed that view, but the Sabres nevertheless elected to send the 2003 Memorial Cup MVP down the thruway to Rochester to start the season.
A strong first quarter of the 2003-04 season with the Rochester Americans, combined with a poor start by the Sabres, led to Roy being summoned to Buffalo in early December. His primary role may have been to light a spark under some more veteran talent on the club, but the young pivot instead made such a good impression that he stuck with the club for the remainder of the season.
While Roy was not contributing a great deal of offense early on, he was instead making his presence felt through his effort and defensive play. That changed a bit in January, when the Sabres called up speedy left winger and fellow rookie Milan Bartovic from Rochester. Roy and Bartovic were on a line with another speedster, Maxim Afinogenov, to form an energy line that gave opponents fits. Working with Roy and Bartovic seemed to help Afinogenov get his game back to where it was prior to his forgettable 2002-03 season, so the two rookies were paying dividends.
Inexplicably, Bartovic was returned to Rochester in early February, but Roy carried on with his energetic play. His presence made veteran center Curtis Brown expendable, which led to Brown being traded at the deadline. Roy did struggle defensively as the season progressed, finishing with a –8 plus/minus rating. The former Kitchener Rangers star played in a total of 49 games, scoring nine goals while notching 10 helpers.
As for Bartovic, he was recalled again in March, and stuck with the Sabres for the rest of the season. In 23 NHL games, the speedy winger scored just one goal while setting up eight others, with his plus/minus standing at +1. The young Slovak has yet to show the scoring touch that the Sabres thought he might have when they selected him in the second round of the 1999 NHL Draft. But Bartovic’s speed and ability to get under the skin of opponents should help him land a more permanent spot on the roster next season.
The other Sabres rookie to have an impact was 23-year-old left winger Andrew Peters. The hulking forward literally fought his way onto the roster, since his other skills leave something to be desired at this time. With long-time Sabres enforcer Rob Ray finally moving on, Peters took it upon himself to fill that void. The St. Catherines, Ontario native earned a spot on the fourth line through the early portion of the season, but was a healthy scratch from late January to early March. Peters, a second round pick in 1998, was in the lineup for the remainder of the season following the trade deadline, however, finishing with 151 penalty minutes in 42 games.
The four other rookies that made appearances in 2003-04 are players who are still works in progress. Goaltender Ryan Miller started just three games for the Sabres, with the last two starts being disastrous. For the first time since being drafted by the Sabres in 1999, Miller showed the growing pains that come with a goaltender’s development, which earned the 23-year-old East Lansing, Michigan native another season in the AHL. Right wingers Norm Milley and Jason Pominville each received call-ups when injuries struck that position, but both players saw only limited action in their short stints (Milley two games, Pominville one) in the NHL. Defenseman Doug Janik played in four games for the Sabres when injuries depleted the defensive corps, and did not look out of place in his appearances.