MONTREAL - The atmosphere is all positive around the Buffalo Sabres this season under a new free-spending owner who made them into a key buyer during the annual summer free agent season.
Under new owner Terry Pegula, the Sabres have gone from having the NHL's 15th biggest payroll to be being right up against the US$64.3 million salary cap. Buffalo has made trades for veteran defencemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff and signed free agent Ville Leino.
But with the new faces come expectations from a city that has seen the club go to the Stanley Cup final in 1975 and 1999 but never bring a championship home.
"We talked about it as a team that we want to embrace the expectations, but we also talked about areas of the game we want to get better at," coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday as his team prepared to face the Montreal Canadiens. "If we focus on those areas we'll be able to meet some of those expectations.
"It's not looking at where we should be, it's how we're going to get there."
They're off to a good start, with wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles in a team-building trip to Europe to start the season, followed by a loss at home to Carolina and a victory in Pittsburgh on Saturday night.
The Sabres already had a decent nucleus with Ryan Miller in goal, budding defenceman Tyler Myers, scoring up front from the likes of Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville and some strong checking forwards with Paul Gaustad and Cody McCormick.
Getting gifted centre Derek Roy back after missing 47 games last season with a torn quadriceps tendon was another boost, as was the surprising play of young winger Luke Adam, who had six points in the opening four games.
This was a team known more for letting star players like Daniel Briere and Chris Drury leave as free agents rather than for bringing them in. They kept Vanek after his 43 goal campaign in 2006-07 only after biting the bullet and matching Edmonton's seven-year $50 million offer sheet to the then-restricted free agent.
Pegula, who took over in February, changed all that.
The payroll jumped from $55 million to $64.2 as general manager Darcy Regier traded with Calgary for shut-down defenceman Regehr, got Ehrhoff from Vancouver via the New York Islanders and signed Leino from Philadelphia, as well as locking up some players already on the roster.
Pegula also spent money on infrastructure, building a new dressing room, training and medical rooms and hiring extra support staff.
Now it's up to Ruff and his team to pay them back by becoming an elite team on the ice.
"Talking to Terry this summer when we were going through the trade process, we knew it was going to be an exciting place to be and there's been a big shift here," said Regehr, who spent his first 11 seasons with the Flames. "It's been fantastic. They're trying to make Buffalo a destination in the NHL."
Miller is in his ninth season as a Sabre and has seen the ups and downs, including trips to the Eastern Conference final in 2006 and 2007, missing the playoffs the following two years and being bounced in the first round the last two seasons.
He said they already had a strong core group of players they had mostly drafted and developed and the newcomers give them extra talent and depth.
"That does make you feel good, but at the same time it should raise your accountability because if you're not pulling your weight maybe they'll look to replace your position," said Miller. "It's good, but it comes with a shift in how we should approach our time in Buffalo.
"We've been trying to work toward a championship for a long time, so it's not lost on us. The fans see more of a buy-in from management now, but I feel the players here have always put the effort in and tried our hardest. But now we do feel a little more help from the top down and we're going to try and embrace that and do our best again."
Everything looks to be geared to keeping players fresh through the season so they will be ready for the playoffs.
Miller tends to be a workhorse, but Jhonas Enroth has already had one start and will likely get 20 to 25 this season.
The four lines all got close to equal ice time against the Penguins, something Ruff hopes to do as often as possible with more depth on his bench this season.
"In Ville's case, we didn't expect Luke Adam to play as well as he did, so right now, (Leino) has got to share a bit of ice time with a rookie," said Ruff. "Even Derek Roy's ice time, which used to be around the 20 minute mark, is around 16 minutes.
"It's made us deeper, but at the same time, there's an adjustment among the group of 12 forwards. It is good. When you can challenge the other team with four lines and the second line is the same as the third and the fourth comes out just as hard as the third, it makes you a dangerous team."
Adam has been playing on the top line with Vanek and Pominville, while Roy centres Nathan Gerbe and Drew Stafford. Leino plays between Tyler Ennis and Brad Boyes on a skilled third unit, while the fourth can also contribute the odd goal with Gaustad, McCormick and Patrick Kaleta.
Scoring winger Jochen Hecht is due to return soon from an injury and Sabres watchers wonder where he can fit in.
"It's tough for the opposing team when there are four solid lines coming at you," said Roy. "That's definitely going to pay dividends later in the season."
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