Penguins: Sabres are paying the price of success now
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Buffalo is not a big city.
It's not particularly vibrant, or thriving.
But it is, for purposes of the NHL, as much of a big-market team as anything to be found in New York or Toronto or Philadelphia or Chicago.
And because of that, the dreams on the Niagara Frontier these days are pretty big, too.
A bit more than 35 inches tall and a tad under 35 pounds, to be precise.
You see, the Sabres, who will visit Consol Energy Center at 7:08 p.m. today, and their fan base are thinking about the Stanley Cup.
While it might seem that that doesn't do much to distinguish them from 29 other clubs and their supporters, the hard reality is that while almost any franchise can be competitive, the ones with the best shot at a championship seem to be those who have considerable resources and the willingness to spend them.
Buffalo has been competitive most of the time in recent years, but rarely was a serious threat to contend for a championship.
The Sabres struggled to retain some of their most productive players once they became free agents -- Daniel Briere and Chris Drury immediately come to mind -- and didn't have the wherewithal to attract many big-time talents from other teams.
And even if the money was there, ownership wasn't inclined to invest as much in personnel as some of the NHL's big spenders were.
• Matchup: Buffalo Sabres at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
• TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
• Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ryan Miller for Sabres.
• Penguins: Are 8-1-1 in past 10 home games against Buffalo. ... C Evgeni Malkin has 20 points in 18 career games against Sabres. ... Power play went 0 for 20 in four games against Buffalo last season.
• Sabres: Will be playing on consecutive days for second time this season. ... LW Luke Adam had four points in first two games, matching 19-game total from 2010-11. ... Scored four of their five goals against Penguins in '10-11 in the first period.
• Hidden stat: Sabres have won season series from Penguins once in the past 11 seasons.
"I'm sure [general manager Darcy] Regier would have loved to have had money five years ago, four years ago, three years ago," Penguins left winger Matt Cooke said Friday. "But that just wasn't the situation."
Buffalo's focus, however, shifted from simply surviving to pursuing serious success when Terry Pegula, a Pennsylvania native and longtime Sabres fan, purchased the team from Tom Golisano for $189 million in February.
Since the deal was closed, the Sabres have brought in big-money talents such as Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr, Ville Leino and Brad Boyes and, in general, done things in a spare-no-expense way rather than trying to squeeze six cents out of every nickel, as had been the norm previously.
(That includes a stunning makeover of the Sabres locker room at First Niagara Center, the venue formerly known as HSBC Arena. Photos suggest that, coincidentally or otherwise, a lot of the new quarters looks like the home team's facilities at Consol Energy Center.)
"For years, we were used to Buffalo not being overly high in the salaries, but still being competitive," Penguins winger Steve Sullivan said Friday. "Now, the new owner wants a winner and is going to try to spend to give themselves the best chance to win."
While upgrading the work environment can have a positive impact on any team, it's the enhanced payroll that is most promising for the Sabres.
With Pegula's blessing -- or perhaps insistence -- Buffalo's payroll is flirting with the league's salary-cap ceiling, reportedly coming in somewhere north of $64.2 million.
The Penguins are believed to be sitting about $1 million below that.
The Sabres overtook them by trading for Regehr ($4.02 million cap hit) and signing Ehrhoff ($4 million) and Leino ($4.5 million) as free agents just a few months after acquiring Boyes ($4 million) at the trade deadline.
While Boyes and Leino add offensive depth, Regehr and Ehrhoff are the marquee acquisitions.
Ehrhoff, the former Vancouver defenseman lured to Buffalo by a $10 year, $40 million contract, has good offensive skills and can quarterback a power play, while Regehr is a shutdown specialist with superb intangibles.
"You add those two defensemen to any hockey club, and they're going to make a difference," said Sullivan, who saw a lot of both while playing in Nashville.
The early return on Pegula's investment has been encouraging; the Sabres opened the season with victories against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings in Europe before taking on the Carolina Hurricane in their home opener Friday night.
Not that generous spending carries any guarantees.
"Just because you spend up to the cap," Cooke said, "doesn't mean you're going to have success."
It sure doesn't hurt a team's chances any, though.
First Published October 15, 2011 12:00 am