"We're happy with the core of our team. We'll continue to grow. Our guys are more than capable of making the playoffs."
How many times in recent years have Buffalo Sabres fans heard this?
After two-straight non playoff seasons, it is same old, same old in Sabreland.
"I like what we have here as a team, and these guys can continue to grow," said Lindy Ruff in an article featured in The Buffalo News.
"I'm Ok going in," Ruff said. "We were pretty close to being where we wanted to be, and a couple disappointing things happened, and we ended up not getting there. The fact that we were able to put on a strong finish was something that I really felt was important for our team."
The first two weeks of free agency brought plenty of trades and signings, most notably in the Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference.
Sabres' rivals—Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and Ottawa Senators—have all made noise in some way or another; not to mention the first place Boston Bruins, who we all know will be just as strong next season.
The Sabres on the other hand, lost Jaroslav Spacek to the Canadiens, and added journeyman defenseman, Steve Montador.
Not a bad addition, considering Montador's size and toughness, as well as a $1.5 million per price tag.
But in no way does he replace a 45-point producing defenseman.
Going into this offseason I was almost certain more dramatic changes would be made—significant changes that would help lift the team back to the top of the Eastern Conference, as they were three seasons ago.
Contrary to the beliefs and comments from Ruff and Darcy Regier, the core isn't good enough. The team still lacks an above-average defenseman to anchor the blueline, as well as secondary scoring, size and toughness.
Sabres fans should be heated when excuses are made for last season's debacle.
"We were knocking on the middle of the Eastern Conference when Ryan [Miller] got hurt. We can't stand around and make excuses, but you can explain sometimes why you didn't get there, and I think that's one explanation," Ruff said.
The Sabres are extremely confident with their core players—Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Tim Connolly—players who may have underachieved the past two seasons, but also showed signs of an inability to carry the full load.
"I expect more to come from within," he said. "I think that we have more there. We've got a [Jason] Pominville that can have a better year. We've got a [Drew] Stafford that can continue to grow, and I think with Timmy [Connolly] healthy he can make some players around him better. I think we've got some young guys that can step in and make a difference."
I do not have a problem with the young guns stepping in, but we still have no idea how they will perform under a full-season's work.
Ruff and Regier have both expressed great confidence in guys such as Chris Butler, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber, Tim Kennedy, Nathan Gerbe, and Tyler Myers, to name a few.
With the departure of Spacek, the Sabres need to fill the void left at the offensive defenseman position, as well as in their own end.
Butler and Sekera will unquestionably have expanded roles next season. Both are extremely good skaters, and are talented both offensively and defensively.
Sekera, who was primed to be a replacement for Brian Campbell, struggled during some parts of the season, and was even benched for a game due to a personal lack of confidence in his game.
After all, he was a rookie. Hopefully next season he will mature into the above-average puck-moving defenseman he can be.
Butler, however, was a very pleasant surprise for Ruff, as well as Sabres fans.
The 6'1"-185 lbs D-man laced up for 47 games last season, recording six points (two goals, four assists). Usually paired with captain Craig Rivet, Butler played as soundly as a 22-year-old rookie can possibly play.
Next season, we'll likely get more of a glimpse of his offensive ability to go along with his strong defense.
Gerbe and Kennedy will both battle for full-time roster spots this offseason. Both had outstanding rookie campaigns while playing for Portland.
Kennedy, a South Buffalo native, recorded 67 points (18 goals, 49 assists) in 73 games for the Pirates—tied for the team lead with Mark Mancari. Kennedy also suited up once last season for his hometown team, failing to get on the stat sheet.
Gerbe, on the other hand, played 10 games for Buffalo, recording only one assist. He was, however, named the AHL's Most Outstanding Rookie for the 2008-09 season, recording 56 points (30 goals, 26 assists) in 57 games.
Both players will battle for voids left in the team's depth chart, as Dominic Moore, Maxim Afinogenov, and Andrew Peters will have new homes next season.
The real question is, should the Sabres be relying on these unproven youngsters, or should they explore the trade market?
The Buffalo News contributed to this article