Dominik Hasek has turned the Sabres' season into one long
farewell tour with his lollapalooza of an announcement on July
30 in Prague that he is retiring after 1999-2000. In a misguided
attempt to deflect attention from himself--the goaltender cited
media pressure as one reason he will leave the game--Hasek has
been guaranteed a year in the spotlight with his valedictory.
The Sabres had better have plenty of roadies with them this
season to help carry the load: Besides the haunting baggage of
Brett Hull's controversial Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 6,
they must lug around the daunting knowledge that the Dominator's
last dance might be their own last chance.
Sabres captain Michael Peca says he will put one of the most
memorable goals in history out of his short-term memory while
also never forgetting it; like his remarkable game, Peca is
playing it both ways. The ability of coach Lindy Ruff, who
signed a three-year extension last month, to make this
slick-skating, gritty club look neither back to the 1999 finals
nor forward to Hasek's departure will determine whether Buffalo
mounts a Cup challenge or falls from grace like the last three
Eastern finalists (Florida, Philadelphia, Washington), who
either failed to win a playoff series or even reach the
postseason the next spring. "I think we can get some good use
out of [Hasek's impending retirement]," Ruff says. "Five years
ago he had to dominate for us to win. Clearly that's not the
case anymore. But it would be nice to give something back to him."
Hasek, who had surgery in mid-August for a slight hernia near
his groin that plagued him last season, found a get-well present
when he reported to camp: right wing Maxim Afinogenov. The best
player in the last world junior tournament, Afinogenov looks
like a cross between a young Pavel Bure (speed, explosiveness,
size) and Wayne Gretzky (only one side of his sweater is tucked
in). "You're afraid of blowing things out of proportion, but
he's a carbon copy of a young Pavel," says Peca, once a teammate
of Bure's in Vancouver. "The explosive power, the confidence.
There are some teams afraid of rushing kids, but he's very
mature about how he handles things on and off the ice."
Afinogenov can help remedy two Buffalo deficiencies: a power
play overly dependent on point men Alexei Zhitnik and Jason
Woolley and a lack of scoring off the wing.
But if the Sabres are determined to take the next step, general
manager Darcy Regier should look for a big No. 1 center to take
pressure off the overworked Peca, and the time to start looking
is now. After all, Hasek gave more than the customary two weeks
October 3, 1999
Last year winger Miroslav Satan became the first Sabre to lead
the team in scoring in back-to-back seasons since Dale Hawerchuk
in 1990-91 and '91-92.
CATEGORY SI RANKING SKINNY
OFFENSE 15 Sanderson, Barnes need to be reliable scorers again
DEFENSE 4 Top four, led by Zhitnik, among the league's best
GOALTENDING 1 Hasek is No. 1 on the planet
SPECIAL TEAMS 14 Peca and Ward are superior penalty killers
COACHING 11 Savvy staff; well respected by the players