BUFFALO, N.Y. – With extensive renovations still taking place inside the Buffalo Sabres locker room, goalie Ryan Miller couldn’t miss the beehive of activity while joining his teammates in reporting for the start of training camp Friday.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Miller said, referring to the US$6 million project that began in June. “So many contractors and workers in here, I wish they could work on my house like that and get things done quick.”
The cost of the renovations are but a small fraction of the more than $120 million in salaries new owner Terry Pegula has committed in adding free agents and re-signing players this off-season in an immediate bid to transform Buffalo into a bona fide contender.
The rebuilding of the Sabres roster hasn’t been lost on Miller, either.
“Terry and Kim, they get things done,” he said, referring to Pegula’s wife, Kim. “Everything they set out to do, they’ve done so far.”
Now comes the hard part. A month away from opening their season with a two-game road trip in Europe, it’s on Miller and his teammates to start delivering on the sky-high expectations Pegula has raised around town.
“We want to win championships,” said Miller, whose honeymoon is suddenly over after he married actress/model Noureen DeWulf two weeks ago.
The process starts Saturday, when the new-look Sabres hold their first practice. And it follows on Monday, when Buffalo opens its pre-season hosting Carolina.
Miller is part of a returning core group that also features forwards Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville. Roy is healthy after missing the final half of last season with a knee injury. And Pominville has been cleared for training camp, having recovered after his lower left leg was slashed by a skate in April, during a first-round playoff series loss to Philadelphia.
And Buffalo has a rising star in third-year defenceman Tyler Myers, the league’s 2010 rookie of the year, who signed a seven-year $38.5 million contract extension on Thursday.
The new additions are a trio of veterans being counted on to provide grit, offence and leadership to a team that finished seventh in the Eastern Conference.
Hard-hitting, stay-at-home defenceman Robyn Regehr was acquired in a draft weekend trade from Calgary. The Sabres acquired the rights to and then signed offensive defenceman Christian Ehrhoff a day before the start of free agency. And then Buffalo opened free agency by signing versatile two-way forward Ville Leino.
They were an eye-popping series of moves prompted by Pegula, who purchased the team in February. And they’re ones that have changed the perception of what had previously been regarded as a cost-conscious franchise that had difficulty acquiring and retaining talent.
“Just the whole outlook has changed,” said Ehrhoff, who signed a 10-year, $40 million contract. “My goal was to be on a team that’s really committed. And ownership has shown that right from the start. This is probably just the beginning.”
The Sabres are coming off a Jekyll and Hyde season. Counted out by December, Buffalo went 29-11-6 over its final 46 games to make the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season. Buffalo ran out of steam in the post-season, squandering a 3-2 series lead against the Flyers.
It marked the second straight year in which the Sabres were eliminated in the first round, and followed two seasons in which Buffalo failed to make the playoffs.
Though excited about the new additions, coach Lindy Ruff is demanding more consistent production from his players.
That includes Miller, whose numbers tailed off last season, when he finished with a 34-22 record and a 2.59 goals-against average. He had seven fewer wins and allowed 0.37 more goals a game than the previous season, when he won the NHL’s Vezina Trophy and led the United States to win a silver medal at the Vancouver Games.
And there will be competition for spots. As a result of their free-spending off-season, the Sabres will have to cut more than $3 million in payroll to get under the NHL’s salary cap by the time they open their season playing Anaheim in Helsinki, Finland, on Oct. 7.
General manager Darcy Regier intends to free up salary by making trades.
“It’s all good stuff,” Ruff said, referring to the team’s active off-season. “We’ve got to work around a few things, but all of this is exciting stuff.”