BUFFALO, N.Y. - Darcy Regier has spent the past two months assessing how to make the Buffalo Sabres competitive again, and concluded that many of the answers are already on the team.
For a club that's missed the playoffs for two straight years, it's time for the Sabres' core group to become accountable, the general manager said in preparing for a busy week, beginning with the NHL Draft, which opens in Montreal on Friday, followed by the start of free agency on Wednesday.
"They really have to look at themselves first and then at each other and, starting with themselves, say, 'How can I help this team?' And then, looking at each other, say, 'How can I help you help this team?"' Regier said. "I think we're at a growth stage in this organization where not only can they do that, they need to do that."
The comments were Regier's first since the season ended in April, when the Sabres became the first NHL team to miss the playoffs in the two consecutive years after winning the Presidents' Trophy for finishing with the league's best record.
The team's lack of identity was particularly evident in late February, when Buffalo lost starting goaltender Ryan Miller to injury. The Sabres endured a 3-7-2 slump to tumble out of playoff contention and were unable to recover despite finishing the season with a 7-2-1 record, a run that coincided with Miller's return.
Regier's assessment doesn't make the draft any less important, but it's unlikely that whomever the Sabres select with their six picks, starting with No. 13 overall, will make an impact on the team this season.
As for free agency, Regier didn't rule out the possibility of going after a player or two, or making a trade in the coming weeks. Just don't expect a blockbuster deal that would significantly alter the Sabres' payroll, which is expected to remain at about US$51 million - about $5 million short of the projected salary cap.
"Whatever moves we make in that area, I think we have to keep in mind that we've got to help the team in the short run and not damage it in the long term as well," Regier said. "We're no longer a young team. We're certainly not an old team. We're a team that I think still has a lot of upside."
That upside includes several prospects, who will be given an opportunity to break into the lineup this season. It's a group that includes forwards Nathan Gerbe, the American Hockey League's rookie of the year last season, and Tim Kennedy, who led AHL rookies with 67 points (18 goals and 49 assists).
Also in the mix is defenceman Tyler Myers, the first of Buffalo's two first-round picks last year. Myers had an exceptional Canadian junior season playing for Kelowna of the Western Hockey League and was also a key contributor in helping Canada win the World Junior Hockey title in January.
Regier's assessment comes as no surprise, because he has traditionally taken the slow and patient approach. It's a cautious philosophy that has both paid off - the Sabres were relatively unchanged following the 2004-05 NHL lockout, when they blossomed into one of the league's top teams - and, at other times, infuriated the team's fans.
This is one of those other times.
A growing chorus of critics urged Sabres ownership to fire both Regier and coach Lindy Ruff, who have been working together in Buffalo since 1997. After a week of uncertainty, the team announced that both would be retained.
Regier is cognizant of the criticism, but won't allow it to affect him.
"I always feel the pressure to get it done. I know that some people don't think I feel it, but I do," Regier said. "I certainly respect what other people think, but there's a job to do, and that's got to be the focal point."
NOTES: This marks the sixth time - and third in seven years - the Sabres have the 13th draft selection. ... In 2004, Buffalo used the 13th pick to select Drew Stafford, who just completed his third NHL season and has 49 goals and 61 points in 184 games. In 2005, the Sabres went with Marek Zagrapan, who has yet to play an NHL game and, this past month, signed to play in Russia. Buffalo maintains Zagrapan's NHL rights. ... The Sabres have until Monday evening to issue qualifying offers and retain the rights to five players, including Stafford, LW Clarke MacArthur and D Andrej Sekera.