Sabres go with youth

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:40 PM ET

The Buffalo Sabres pull into town for a friendly against the Maple Leafs tonight and, boy, this ought to be good.

For no extra charge, you can see two teams heading in profoundly different directions.

A hint: The Sabres are the young, fast ones with all the upside.

This should be a sweet year for fans in western New York. For them, the Maple Leafs always have been the blueprint worth emulating.

The Leafs have an inexhaustible fan base, an enviable history and a compelling mix of players. Buffalo people say Toronto is like New York if it was run by the Swiss. Honest.

No wonder that when the Knox brothers founded their team, they made the foundation colour blue and imported former Leafs maven Punch Imlach as general manager.

RUDDERLESS SHIP

But the Leafs are creaking and seemingly directionless. General manager John Ferguson Jr. insists there is a plan, a cohesive one to explain everything and he will share it with us as soon as the Trafalmadorans release his brain from the Hypno-Hold.

The Sabres, by way of comparison, increasingly have the look of a team on the way up.

The Sabres have a raft of good young players such as forwards Jochen Hecht, Tomas Vanek and goalie Ryan Miller.

The Leafs have Kyle Wellwood and Alex Steen, but neither is ready to step in immediately.

With $10 million US to spare under the salary cap, the Sabres will have ample room to upgrade their roster at the trade deadline.

"I do think we're going to see a lot of movement," Sabres GM Darcy Regier said. "Our deadline will be between $27 million and $29 million, but we'll have an open mind on our payroll depending on where we are."

The Leafs, at about $37 million, will sit amidst the deals like roadkill on the Gardiner.

That's going to be critically important because a host of expensive veterans will be available at the deadline for gas money.

The Leafs will pay Ed Belfour $4.5 million this season to be their No. 1 guy. Assuming he unseats veteran Marty Biron, Miller will make the rookie maximum of $850,000.

If Miller isn't ready, Biron and Mika Noronen can step in. Belfour is coming off back surgery. At 40, he will be the oldest goalie in the NHL.

After him, the options include the luckless Mikael Tellqvist and then anyone even distantly related to Lester Patrick. It's not much to pin your season on.

On that note, the Leafs have two principal players, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison, coming off long-term injuries. The Leafs have committed a relatively scant amount, $3 million, for the two, but there are no replacements at hand. Allison hasn't played in well over two years. Lindros' last good season was 2001-02.

While the Leafs are integrating veterans such as Lindros, Allison, Brad Brown and Alexander Khavanov, the Sabres are set. Of their first 23 roster spots, 17 played at least one game with the club two years ago even though only four members were on hand for the Sabres' most recent playoff appearance in 2000-01.

The Sabres didn't blow major money trying to keep veterans Miroslav Satan and Alexei Zhitnik. The Sabres found $2 million for Teppo Numminen to eat a portion of the minutes usually directed for Zhitnik. Dmitri Kalinin will get the rest. Satan, who pantomimed a phone conversation at the trade deadline in 2003-04, took his act to Long Island. He is unlamented.

The rebuilding is yet to come here. They are nearly through in Buffalo.

"Every team's goal is to make the playoffs and it's the same for us," Regier said. "Then we go from there."


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