Camp Pathfinder, where I've spent my last ten summers, seven as a camper, three as staff, is a canoe tripping camp in Algonquin Park, Canada. It's also a wellspring of blind optimism for the Bills and Sabres. The camp was founded in 1914 by two Rochester men, and the current enrollment of staff and campers is mostly comprised of guys from Buffalo and Rochester. Every June when I go up, I know there are at least fifteen people I can detailed conversations with about Buffalo sports. This stands in stark opposition to the decidedly one sided, slightly alienating conversations I have in Chicago. At camp, there are people who understand. We can commiserate over the pain of the last season or, rarely, delight in the highs we've experienced in the past year.
July 1st is the beginning of free agency in the NHL; and it's also the day the first set of campers arrive, referred to as "The Big Moment." While some staff say that they are disappointed to know that the campers are coming to ruin the staff-only paradise, there is still a sense of anticipation hanging in the air, a buzz, as we sit and wait by the motorboat dock (the camp is on an island) for campers to arrive. There is card playing, idle conversation, some reading, as we wait, and kids being dropped off by their parents slowly trickle in (as opposed to the ones who take the Buffalo/Rochester buses, who arrive in a massive flood) and staff man care called on to carry trunks and duffles to sleepages after their camper has taken an obligatory photo.
This year, however, a new anticipation was suffused onto the day for me and six or seven other diehards. We wondered, we speculated, we day dreamed a little bit. What would the Sabres do today? With our new owner, Terry Pegula, a free spender with one stated goal- win a Stanley Cup- we were suddenly players in the free agent market. The team was actively making moves to shape itself into a contender, a feeling I've never had in the Sabres (or the Bills), and I've only had once or twice before, when the Cubs made midseason trades in '03 and had big free agency splashes in '06-'07 with Soriano and Fukudome. Otherwise, my teams have always tried to homegrow talent and strike lucky from there, a plan that sometimes works but often leaves your team defeated in the conference championships, the league championships, never with a chance to play for the overall championship. This was the case with the Briere-Drury Sabres in '04-'06, the Cubs in '03 (sort of), the Bills in '99 (the last time they've made the playoffs) and the Bulls this year.
So now I got to watch, in a new kind of joy, as the Sabres tried to make that next step. First, pre July 1st, came the trade for Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr (along with Ales Kotalik, back from sabbatical), a pure defensive guy, one who finishes his checks, a tough guy the Sabres need. News on the island is hard to come by- there is electricity on about four buildings on the island, cell phones are seldom used and basically banned, and there is a scarcely available computer with an internet connection. So this kind of news came to us in trickles, each new morsel satisfying our craving for information.
So we had gotten Regehr, and only traded fellow defenseman Chris Butler and Paul Byron, a young, expendable forward, undersized. Butler was maddeningly inconsistent. The only thing he could do consistently, it seemed, was screw up in important moments, and most fans did not trust him anymore, so it did not hurt to see him go.
I learned the next bit of pre July 1st news in a van on the eve of a day long whitewater training trip. The Sabres had just completed a trade for the rights to sign RFA D-man Christian Ehrhoff for only a fourth round pick, and promptly signed him the next day. Ehrhoff is an offensively talented defenseman who played in Vancouver last season, providing solid play on the powerplay and playing first pair minutes. With his signing, suddenly, the Sabres have, for the first time I can remember, a formidable defense. And all this before free agency had begun! Defense is something you can never have enough of in hockey, and the Sabres especially needed more after being exposed by the Flyers in this year's playoffs. Simply put, Ryan Miller couldn't do it alone. There are some nights when he is unbeatable and our defense can be subpar. But when it's not his night, and he's not playing at his transcendent peak, that was when the holes of the defense were exposed and the Sabres would lose because of it unless the offense made a monumental effort, not something that could be counted on consistently.
Now, though, the defense should be strong. The top four of Tyler Myers, Ehrhoff, Regehr and Jordan Leopold rivals any other in the leagues in terms of depth. The last pair, probably Marc-Andre Gragnani and Andrej Sekera, have plenty of potential, now get to play third pair minutes and develop into solid players, providing more depth. Tyler Myers should be particularly pleased by these additions- last year he couldn't play his usual offensive style of defensive because he lacked a solid defensive partner. Now he can settle into the groove he started to enter at the tail end of last season. For the whole unit, the hope is now that they will be tougher and able to punish teams defensively, allowing our offense to work in the other teams' zone. One maddening thing I've noticed about the defense is the inability to clear the puck after gaining the puck in their own zone-especially in the playoffs- and maybe, with more experience, that issue can be solved. Ehrhoff also brings considerable skill on the power play and on offense in general, a huge boost to the overall team.
So all this had come to pass in the week leading up to The Big Moment. As July 1st approached, we had visions in our heads of Brad Richards, a top line center (just what the Sabres need), the cream of the free agent crop, who we were reportedly in the contention for despite his price tag. As noon rolled by, the bell on the island rang for the arrival of campers, and also marked the beginning of NHL free agency.
We had to wait by the dock for our campers to arrive, or else I would've been trying to get on a computer to get updates. Luckily, a fellow staffman, Gill, who might be the biggest Sabres fan I've ever met, was receiving text updates on the sly from his friends in Buffalo, as well as my friend Jeremy. So every twenty to thirty minutes or so, I'd talk to them both for any sort of update. Not much was going on in the early going- no news of any sort. We talked about how good our defense was going to be and other moves we could make. Gill smartly pointed out that Tyler Myers was going to be a free agent next year, so some money had to be saved to keep a future Norris Trophy contender on the team for the long term future. My spirits were dampened, but still, I knew we were going to do something.
Finally, after some interminable time, we had news, unexpected at that. It was not Brad Richards, no, it was Ville Leino, a RFA who the Flyers hadn't kept and I didn't even know would be on the market. Leino is a skilled winger who adds a scoring punch to the lineup. He has bounced from the Red Wings to the Flyers, two teams loaded with talent, and hasn't gotten the chance to be on a top six player, which he now has. Jeremy had seen reports that the Flyers would regret letting him go, which is always good news (though, I know now they acquired Bryzgalov, a top goalie. Still, they had a weird offseason, contenders dumping quality players and signing a back-from-the-KHL Jaromir Jagr). And, on a personal note, he always seemed to kill the Sabres whenever they played the Flyers, but now he had switched sides. Sure, he wasn't Brad Richards, but he helps the offense, another sniper who can aid our offense and powerplay. The Sabres last season seemed to be missing just one piece on offense, and while a center would've been nice, Leino should fit in quite nicely. The top six forwards project to be Vanek, Leino, Roy (hopefully in pre-injury form), Stafford, Gerbe and Ennis, though there's only one center in that group, so Brad Boyes will have to step in, and Pominville is a great two way forward who will probablu be among the top two lines. McCormick, Kaleta, Gaustad, Kotalik, Hecht, and maybe Luke Adam or Zach Kassain- Adam the AHL Rookie of the Year, Kassain a recent first round pick, fill out the rest. It is not a murderers' row, but there is a depth we haven't had since '04-'06, when the Sabres had four reasonably productive lines. The middle is decidedly weak, but that is an issue that should be worked on throughout the season, with Luke Adam hopefully stepping up. Overall, with the Sabres resigning Gerbe and Stafford, and bringing in Leino, the offense is unquestionably better. The team seems to take on Boston for the division crown and contend for the East and maybe even a Stanley Cup. Last year, at camp, we shook our heads as we learned that the Big Free Agent acquisition was Rob Niedermayer. Now, we celebrated.
The losses we suffered weren't bad, either. Richards went to the Rangers for a high price, filling out their stable of high priced stars who all seem to fade out under the bright lights. We let Steve Montador go- he was now expendable with the new defensive acquistions. My Blackhawks fan friends were excited to get him but most Sabres fans are ambivalent. He was over-the-hill, anyway. Most hilarious was the 'loss' of Tim Connolly, the perennially injured, too often showboating, party animal center, chased out of Buffalo behind cocaine rumors. And who signs him but the Maple Leafs, desperately overpaying the center in a thin market, to try and look like they are making an effort to get back in contention. They signed him to two years, 9.5 million, a bigger cap hit per year than Leino is to the Sabres. There are some Leafs fans at camp and I spent a good deal of time laughing in their faces.
That was July 1st and beyond. My commiserates were lost in a daze of optimism for the next couple days, an optimism, this time, that was actually based on something real, a reaction to to something that has actually happened as instead of a hope of the unseen, of something that could happen if the pieces fell into place magically. Now, this time, there was someone placing the pieces, planning ahead, making us believe.
As for the Bills, well, we kept believing in the pieces somehow falling into place, stumbling through a field of fog looking for a beacon. The lockout ended later than I expected- I kept coming back from canoe trips, expecting it to be over, but kept getting the same news- no news, no progress. But near the end of July, when news hit that the owners had come to an agreement, and the players had signed off to the new deal, the fervent Bills optimism began. "Now we can begin our Super Bowl Run! Bills in 2011!" said many, in the way that only Bills fans can. Hope is really all we have left, and we cling to it, shoot for the moon and invariably miss it, but still ready to make the journey again. In a word we are indefatigable, we can't give up now.
The Bills, unlike the current Sabres, do not spend big. They are one of the teams far below the salary cap, but they do not have or intend to spend the money. As the 1st half ended, I traveled with a friend to Buffalo to spend two days off between the two halves. This was just as the lockout ended, so SportsCenter was exploding with football, with not a word about the Bills, of course. Still, it was nice to see football back and now the Bills would report to camp soon. I returned to camp for 2nd Half and the slow trickle of news began again. The Bills resigned all their draft picks, a good sign. The Bills had what I thought was actually a good draft, focusing on fixing a leaky run defense. Unfortunately, in the first days of Free Agency, we lost Paul Pozlusny, severely thinning an already weak linebacking crew. We did sign Nick Barnett, former Rookie of the Year, coming off the IR, who might just be better than Poz. The Bills made some more minor splashes, with the signing of Brad Smith, a receiver who specializes in gadget plays (the Wildcat), and adding some depth at WR (especially now that we traded Lee Evans- but to be honest, he was a shell of a number one receiver, and there are a lot of guys below him who look ready to play). I guess its a good pick up, if only to screw with the Jets gadget plays. The Bills also picked up a back up quarterback, Tyler Thigpen, who has thrived under Chan Gailey's system before. Now he serves as a dependable back up if Fitzpatrick gets hurt. In the end, the Bills, through this whole offseason, have gotten a tiny bit better. The D-line, with Dareus (he's looked great this pre-season) and Kyle Williams, might be the first good D-line we've had since Pat Williams was a Bill. The secondary looks decent, and the linebackers have some potential and might be helped by the improved D Line. On offense, the Bills have plenty of potential- a young, deep set of receivers; Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller, hopefully effectively splitting carries, and Fitzpatrick making more ballsy decisions as he settles into the role as at least the transition franchise quarter back. The offensive line is still iffy, but perhaps developing into a decent unit. It's easy to forget that the Bills played 9 games against playoff teams last year, including both Super Bowl participants and the Jets and Patriots each twice, and took the Ravens, Steelers and Chiefs to overtime. They kept it close with the Bears and the Patriots once. They're not far from being .500 or even a playoff bid.
I see three possibilities- a sneaky playoff run (wild card); they hang around till the end of the season and just miss the playoffs (labeled a sleeper team for next season); they bottom out and get the first pick (Andrew Luck!). There is nothing behing that three pronged, cover all the bases prediction other than feeling, either blinding hope of damning realistic pessimism. At camp, though, we just laugh off the bad omens, bear through the storm clouds collecting, and march through, gazes fixed on what awaits s on the end of the trail, that it will be a place of beauty, as it is on our canoe trips. It is this reassurance that aids us to sleep as we lay down in our tents for another magnificent night, beneath a night sky that is full of satellites, constellations, shooting stars, possibility.