Several days before the Sabres made center Pierre Turgeon of Rouyn, Que., the first pick in the 1987 NHL draft, he came to Buffalo for a medical exam and to take his first look at the city that would be his home. "The people, they were very nice," he remembers. "Downtown? It was, uh, how do you say? So-so. Of course, it is getting better now."
Buffalo, a Rust Belt town, has been undergoing a renewal in the last couple of years. So, in a way, has Turgeon's hockey team, which finished a dreary third in the Adams Division last season but through Sunday led the entire NHL. The Sabres began the 1980s as a consistently competitive team, but the bottom soon fell out when they went through a parade of coaches. It wasn't until June 1987 that things began to look up.
That was when the Sabres drafted Turgeon. Now in his third season in the NHL, he is maturing, at only 20, into one of the league's top offensive threats and has made Buffalo a force to be reckoned with. The Sabres stayed unbeaten at home (13-0-1) with a 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals on Sunday night, and despite two losses in their last five games, they led the league with 42 points, three ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, the NHL and Adams Division runners-up.
Turgeon is not the only reason for the Buffalo resurgence, of course. On defense the Sabres are anchored by one of the NHL's best defensive pairs, Mike Ramsey and Uwe Krupp, and by one of its best offensive pairs, Phil Housley and Doug Bodger. And the play of goaltender Daren Puppa has justified general manager Gerry Meehan's bold trade last year of the adept Tom Barrasso to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Bodger and a minor league prospect.
The Sabres are also better this year because they are happier. The acerbic Ted Sator, fired as coach after losing to the Boston Bruins in the first round of last spring's playoffs, wasn't a people person. Sator's replacement, Rick Dudley, is. Some players, such as tough-guy wings Mike Hartman and Kevin Maguire, who had limited roles under Sator, have become notably more productive under Dudley.
But it's Turgeon who has made the big difference. Through Sunday, he had 16 goals and 30 assists to rank fifth in the NHL with 46 points. His scoring and passing skills have given Buffalo its first dominant player on the forward line in years. "Pierre has tremendous perception, tremendous ice vision," says Dudley. "He can sense where the pass or the player is going. Like, he'll know when and where Housley is going to jump into a play, and have the puck there for him."
Turgeon, the son of a lumberjack, spent endless days refining his skills on an iced-over baseball field in Rouyn, a mining town. There he and his elder brother, Sylvain, now a forward with the New Jersey Devils, chased the Canadian schoolboy's dream of reaching the NHL. Like most little brothers, Pierre started as a goalie; Sylvain, who is four years older, and his friends got to shoot. "But when I started to play organized hockey when I was six or seven," Pierre says, "they told me, 'You'd better play out here.' "
By 1986, after he had scored 47 goals and had 67 assists in his first junior season at Granby, Que., it was clear Pierre had been positioned properly. Sylvain has the better set of legs, but in six NHL seasons he has failed to demonstrate his younger brother's drive. Pierre has superior speed in his hands, and after a modest 42-point rookie year, he has steadily gained strength in his upper body. He has grown smarter, too. "We figured we had enough other talent his first year that we didn't have to put Pierre into a savior situation," says Meehan. "It wasn't until the playoffs that year [against the Bruins] that he started to assert his big-game capabilities."
Turgeon had another strong playoff series last season, scoring eight points in five games and providing quiet leadership for the Sabres. A shy kid who spoke virtually no English when he came to Buffalo, he has demonstrated a strength of character that should help the Sabres to eventually get over the first-round playoff hump. "He spends a lot of extra time working on his game," says Dudley, "and he has one thing I probably like the most in a star—humility. You have a problem when your superstar is a jerk."
Although he is emerging from his shell and gradually overcoming the language barrier, Turgeon is still better at scoring goals than describing them. "I don't think about the things I do, at least offensively," he says. "I just do them. If you improvise too much, though, you will have a three-on-two against you."
Turgeon's healthy respect for defense has to be credited to Sator, who is an excellent strategist. "Ted was very good for me," says Turgeon, "but there are players on the team he did not get along with, so it was best that he go."
Turgeon has benefited from Dudley's arrival in one obvious way—the markedly improved play of Turgeon's left wing, Dave Andreychuk. Until Dudley began to preach positive thinking, Andreychuk had only sporadically flashed the talent that made him a first-round draft choice in 1982. Slow afoot and undermotivated, he had become a symbol of the Sabres' failed promise.
With 16 goals and 16 assists through Sunday, Andreychuk now looks like a new player. He and Turgeon's right wing, Mike Foligno, are big and strong enough to hold their places in the slot, and the two wings have excellent hands that turn passes into goals when Turgeon deftly slips the puck to them.
Turgeon is especially dangerous behind the net. "The defensemen don't know whether to come to me or not," he says. If they challenge him, he can lift the puck past them and onto his left wing's stick faster than you can say "Andreychuk." If they don't challenge him, Turgeon may move laterally in search of a passing lane to Housley at the point, or he may circle in front of the net and get off a quick, accurate wrist shot.
In the Sabres' 4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers last Thursday, Turgeon briefly demonstrated his shooting skill. From a narrow angle 20 feet from the Flyers' net he launched the puck into a minute opening over goalie Ken Wregget's right shoulder. It was a spectacular shot made to look ordinary by a very unordinary player.
"You can't be great unless you aspire to be great," says Dudley, who believes the Sabres lapsed into mediocrity because they sought little more than respectability during the 1980s. With Turgeon, they may acquire a whole lot more than that.