NEW PLAYERS 4
NEW RULES HELP
BETTER THAN '03-04? NO
For five undistinguished NHL seasons, right wing Maxim Afinogenov has frustrated his coaches by squandering his sublime talents with timid, indifferent play. Coach Lindy Ruff has constantly pushed his most skilled player to go to the net and cut through traffic, with little success. Ruff once referred to Afinogenov's progress as, "... a step forward, then a step sideways, then it's a step backwards ... a round dance."
Afinogenov has been wary of contact for a reason. Hours after signing a two-year, $2.4 million contract on Sept. 4, 2002, he took a puck to the head during a pickup game in Moscow. He missed the first 46 games of the next season with a concussion and upon his return had just 11 points in 35 games and sometimes covered his face when someone shot a puck in his direction. It took almost two years for his migraines to disappear. This season's rule changes may help alleviate some of the headaches Afinogenov has given his coach. "The new rules should really help Max," says Ruff. "He can get a step on you and get extra opportunities [because] you can't get that extra tug to slow him down."
No Sabre will benefit more from the changes than Afinogenov, one of the league's swiftest skaters, but no team will face a bigger stylistic adjustment than the Sabres if Ruff ditches his defense-first system to fit the new rules and his speedy roster. Buffalo players have clashed with Ruff over the system while missing the playoffs three straight times--a first for the franchise.
Regardless of Ruff's approach, plenty of Sabres will enjoy the open ice, including clutch-scoring center Chris Drury; playmaker Tim Connolly, who missed the 2003-04 season with a concussion; and center Daniel Briere, who led the team with 65 points in '03-04. And, of course, Afinogenov. "Good possibilities for me," says the 26-year-old, who should exceed his career highs of 21 goals and 40 points. "The changes will make it easier for forwards to go to the net."
That's a dance Ruff can't wait to see. --B.C.
Chris Drury needs to be a strong leader.... Thomas Vanek (42 goals in the AHL last year) can really score.
Thomas Vanek [rookie]
• ALL CAPS denotes new player
• Italics denotes rookie