Tim Connolly, Ales Kotalik, and Maxim Afinogenov.
The trio of extremely talented forwards has always faced both adoration and criticism in Buffalo. Three of the longest tenured Sabres, each brings a quality the Sabres don't have in another player to the ice.
Connolly, still young at only 27, is the perennial health risk. When healthy, however, he is one of the best playmakers in the league. His fluid skating ability, vision, timing, and hands are all near the top of the league. He is deadly both on the power play, as an assist man, and as a penalty killer, because of his ability to know what an opponent is going to do before they do it.
Kotalik, 6'2" with a blistering slap shot, brings a size to the team they have often been criticized for not having enough of. Kotalik can play the point on the power play and is deadly when he can wind up and let a shot fly. Strangely, he is also one of the best in the league in shootouts.
Afinogenov is fast. Old school Russian hockey player fast. Afinogenov has the kind of speed and passion that makes Rick Jeanneret's excitable voice jump two octaves. He is the kind of playmaker who moves, shakes, shimmies, and stickhandles. He believes he can beat anyone in the league one-on-one, or one-on-four. He has often made the kind of play that leaves fans in disbelief.
Despite their immense talent, none of them are considered part of the Sabres' top-six. Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Daniel Paille, Jochen Hecht, and Paul Gaustad (once healthy) will all be above them on the depth chart.
Precariously, each of the three is playing out the final season of his contract for the Sabres. As a quick note, so are Andrew Peters and Jaroslav Spacek. But the difference with Spacek seems to be that his head is on straight and the potential to bring him back seems higher, and I just don't care about Peters enough to write more than this in a story on him.
These players have to feel like they are in somewhat of a dubious situation. Management has put in the hours rewarding players they deem as their future. Over the past two seasons, Miller, Pominville, Vanek, Hecht, and Roy have all been given long contract extensions.
Expect Drew Stafford, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber, and Dan Paille to each get longer deals over the next few years also. The Sabres may bring back Spacek, as the team has realized it should refocus its money on the players who actually want to be in Buffalo.
The Sabres have already committed over $41 million for next season, have some of the aforementioned players to lock up still, and have a bunch of players in Portland playing this season to prepare for next season. Even if the cap goes up next season, the Sabres seem to have hit their saturation rate and understand that their cap max is around $50 million.
For Connolly, Kotalik and Afinogenov, the writing on the wall is pretty clear: Give it one more shot, thanks for the memories, buh bye. But what happened to these three, exactly?
Connolly's downside is that he doesn't just have an Achilles' heel; he is an Achilles' heel. He is always one hit away from another concussion or body breakdown. Kotalik doesn't use his size nearly enough. He will flash it in for a shift in games, and show it more often in playoff games to the point of dominance, but his inconsistency, streakiness, and disappearance are mind boggling.
The problem with Max? Too much. He skates too much, he thinks too much, he wants to do too much. He plays as an individual. Defensemen are faster now. Forwards know that to remain in the league, unless your name is Crosby, backchecking is paramount. Cherry picking doesn't work, and hockey is now, more than ever, a team game. Players who think individually and try to take play to a one-on-one game will simply lose.
Any combination of the players in Portland, the Russian prospects, or the European prospects joining the roster next season would give the Sabres two choices.
They could let the new wave of youth be their depth, and the current veterans locked up become their true leaders as they gel into a new type of team without Connolly, Kotalik, and Max on the roster. Alternatively, they could bring up the youth, but also make an attempt at one major free agent acquisition in a strong free agent class that could move the roster talent near the top of the league. Either way, the future seems to be without the trio.
I've never been in the locker room, nor do I claim to know the true makeup of these three players. Nevertheless, these three hold the destiny of the 2008-2009 Sabres season in their hands. Anyone who has ever had a job which has an expiration date knows the feelings felt inside as that date nears.
There is a turmoil felt between a sense of duty over an obligation to finish the job and the aloofness for whether it should really be finished. One might possibly sour on the job, or the company as a whole, and stop caring completely.
The Sabres' season depends on head coach Lindy Ruff's ability to get the to-be free agents to perform. A productive third and fourth line, as well as a productive power play depends on them.
Can Ruff motivate these players and push the right buttons so they perform for their teammates, for personal pride, or for their next contract? Will these players perform after seeing their teammates rewarded with rich deals, knowing their own future depends on both a good performance this season but also finish the season in good health?
What will happen the first time a check isn't finished by one of these guys, and more importantly, what will happen in game 80 if the team needs a win for the playoffs? Many will say it will matter, and many will say it's just business; and the players understand.
If Connolly, Kotalik, and Afinogenov are able to put everything they are feeling aside and showcase their talents, the Sabres will bounce back from a playoff-less 2008. If they cannot, the hard part then goes to Regier and Ruff. They'll need to put loyalties aside and accurately assess where these player's heads are at.
If they decide their hearts or heads are not in it and the season starts to spiral negatively either internally or externally, they need to pull the trigger on a deal and ship these players out of town.