BUFFALO, N.Y. - Not enough leadership on a Sabres team with too young of a lineup was blamed as the key reason Buffalo failed to make the playoffs this season.
That's the assessment Sabres executives provided at the team's season-end news conference Thursday, when general manager Darcy Regier announced his objective to pursue veterans in free agency this summer to turn Buffalo into a contender again.
"If you look at where we finished, it wasn't good enough to be in the playoffs," Regier said. "I think that leadership is one of the areas we'd like to add to."
Flanked by managing partner Larry Quinn and coach Lindy Ruff, Regier spoke five days after the Sabres completed their season by becoming only the third team since the NHL expansion era began in 1967-68 to miss the playoffs a year after finishing first in the regular-season standings.
The intention to add players in free agency is a switch for a franchise that wasn't very active the previous two off seasons and was rather more intent on retaining and developing its own players. It's also interpreted as an acknowledgment that the Sabres underestimated the value of losing both co-captains, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, to free agency last season.
The Sabres core of leaders was depleted further when veteran defenceman Teppo Numminen missed all but the season finale after having heart surgery. Buffalo took another hit in February, when it traded Brian Campbell to San Jose rather than risk losing the two-time all-star defenceman to free agency this summer.
"Yeah, this year we didn't make the playoffs. And yes, Drury and Briere didn't stay here," Quinn said. "I understand all that. I think that's been made perfectly clear. But when all's said and done, I absolutely believe we can win here."
Quinn stressed the Sabres aren't far off after finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference standings, and remained in contention through the final four days of the season.
"The downside is they're young. The upside is they're young," Quinn said. "And we intend to sit down and figure out a way to make this grow and improve it."
Quinn added that Regier, who also has one year left on his deal, isn't going anywhere either.
"This is his team as far as we're concerned," Quinn said. "As far as ownership's concerned, if he still has the fire in the belly and still has it in Buffalo, he obviously knows he can stay here and we'll have that conversation when he's ready."
Regier responded by saying, "I'm happy where I am."
Other topics touched discussed during the 45-minute session included Quinn and Regier reiterating the Sabres' intent to secure goalie Ryan Miller and play-making forward Jason Pominville to long-term contracts this off-season. Both players have one season left on their contracts.
The Sabres are prevented from opening negotiations with the two until July 1, but Regier said management has already discussed a "ballpark" number to offer Miller.
"We all feel it's important for us to find a way to keep him here," Regier said.
Another off-season priority is signing a capable backup to take the pressure off of Miller, who grew fatigued down the stretch of a season in which he set a franchise record with 76 appearances.
Ruff acknowledged that he might have overworked Miller.
The Sabres finished about US$3 million under the NHL's $50.3 million salary cap this season. The team is likely to break even financially despite missing the playoffs.
Quinn expressed concern when referring to reports that the cap might jump to $56 million next season, but said the Sabres will remain competitive.
"I just think we'll find a way to make it work," Quinn said. "We didn't this year, and I think we can apologize to our fans for it."