BUFFALO, N.Y. - It's a humbling experience going from Stanley Cup contenders one year to missing the playoffs the next, which is something Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres don't take lightly.
With a wool cap pulled tightly down to his eyebrows, the star goalie - almost incognito - modestly outlined the perspective he's gained after an ultra-long, five-month offseason ended Friday, when Sabres players reported for the start of training camp.
"Some of the disappointment kind of wears off and you turn it into motivation," Miller said. "I don't have any real profound remarks. I don't think there needs to be. It's another season, fresh start."
That's as simple as it gets around the Sabres these days, three weeks prior to the start of the regular season.
Gone were the T-shirts with the Stanley Cup emblazoned on the front, which Sabres players wore in proclaiming their confidence and objective at the start of previous camps. Also missing was the telltale buzz of excitement that followed the team's back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and '07.
In their place was an almost quiet insistence that the Sabres are prepared to rebound from a streaky up-and-down season in which Buffalo (39-31-12) finished 10th in the East and became only the third team since NHL expansion in 1967-68 to miss the playoffs a year after winning the regular-season title.
"Hopefully, we're a year older. And hopefully, we're a little more mature," Miller said. "We've got to take our lesson from last year."
The lesson Miller referred to regarded a Sabres team that spent much of last season searching for its identity after losing co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency in July 2007.
The team's lack of cohesion showed particularly in how it went 14-18 in one-goal games a year after going 25-16. That, plus a dreadful 0-5-5 mid-season skid, combined to eliminate Buffalo from playoff contention in the final week.
The hope is that the Sabres' young core is prepared to establish its identity at the start, and not the end, of this season.
"Everybody's here hungry, ready to start it up again," forward Paul Gaustad said. "I learned a lot from last season and a lot of guys did. So I think we can improve off that growth we had."
The Sabres buy into that belief. Management elected to keep most of its roster intact, with the exceptions of acquiring veteran defenceman Craig Rivet in a trade with San Jose and adding veteran goalie Patrick Lalime in free agency to serve as a proven backup to Miller, who wore down after appearing in a career-high 76 games last season.
Otherwise, the Sabres have such belief in their young core that they spent the summer signing Miller, Gaustad and forward Jason Pominville to long-term contracts.
They were moves welcomed by the players.
"I think that's a good core to build a team around," forward Thomas Vanek said. "I think what's important is that all those guys want to be here and are happy to be here. And that's where it starts."
It also starts with Vanek, who finished with a team-leading 36 goals. But his points production dropped to 64 from 84 the previous season.
Vanek struggled under the added pressure after he signed a new seven-year, US$50 million contract. It didn't help that the Sabres offensive attack was depleted without Drury and Briere, allowing opponents to focus their attention on him.
"As a team and me as a person, we've got to be more consistent," Vanek said.
Veteran defenceman Toni Lydman described the struggles as an important reminder of what it's like to fail, something the Sabres weren't accustomed to the previous two years.
"We were, what is the fancy word for it, underachievers last year," Lydman said. "You've learned something about yourself as a hockey player and as a team. I think it should be a good pump for us this year."