“We’re still going to be at a high level,” Miller said on Thursday as players reported for preseason physicals. “I think the panic button was pushed way too early. As much as I respect Danny and Chris, it’s far more than two guys that make up a team. They helped us, but we also helped them.”
The Sabres will take the ice Friday for the first day of training camp, officially kicking off a season that won’t include Briere and Drury for the first time since 2003.
The duo shared the team’s captaincy the last two seasons, helped lead the Sabres to two consecutive Eastern Conference final appearances, and were both ranked in the top four in team scoring each of those seasons.
But with Briere signing a free agent contract with Philadelphia and Drury moving on to play for the Rangers, the Sabres now face the challenge of reinventing themselves.
Bring it on, says Miller.
“Those are two veteran guys, and they delivered,” Miller said. “But we have guys with the talent to deliver.”
There’s no questioning that Briere and Drury were the faces of the franchise, and their leadership and offensive exploits were a main reason for Buffalo’s recent success. Leadership will now be passed to players such as Miller and defenceman Brian Campbell.
“We’re going to be fine,” Campbell said. “This team has faced adversity in the past with injuries and stuff. Those guys aren’t here, but it’s not going to change what we are as a team, and the confidence we have in each other.”
The offensive spotlight will be on three-year veteran Thomas Vanek, especially since the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft inked a US$50-million, seven-year deal over the off-season, the richest contract in team history. Vanek’s 43 goals led the team last year, and his 84 points trailed only Briere’s team-high 95.
“I have expectations from myself every year, so money’s not going to change anything,” Vanek said. “I don’t think it’s my show because there are still three solid lines that can score.”
Buffalo is also counting on a dynamic return of playmaking centre Tim Connolly, who missed all but two games last season because of a concussion sustained in the 2006 playoffs. Connolly responded with a breakout season following the lockout in 2005-06, but wasn’t afforded the opportunity to build off that success last year.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s been a good summer of training. I feel good and ready to go.”
Just 12 months after being heavy Stanley Cup favourites, the Sabres have been dropped from those conversations, in large part because of Briere and Drury’s departures. But Miller cautioned those who have already counted Buffalo out.
“We’re still a very strong team,” he said. “We’re going to be tough to deal with.”
Meanwhile, the Sabres will be working without defenseman Teppo Numminen, who needs surgery to correct a cardiac condition. General manager Darcy Regier made the announcement Thursday, adding that he doesn’t know when Numminen will have the surgery or how much time he’ll miss.