Sharp edge to these Sabres

Bruins admire the professionalism and team-building approach of their playoff opponent

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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WILMINGTON — On July 21, 1997, just over a month after Darcy Regier was named Buffalo Sabres general manager, he hired Lindy Ruff as head coach. More than 12 years later, Ruff is leading the Sabres to their seventh playoff appearance during his watch.

In that time, Pat Burns, Mike Keenan, Robbie Ftorek, Mike O’Connell, Mike Sullivan, Dave Lewis, and Claude Julien have stared down Ruff from the Bruins bench. Not exactly the stable organization Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has been aiming to build.

“I’ve always admired the Buffalo organization — the way they’ve built their team, how they stress bringing players through their system, how they get players in their lineup,’’ said Chiarelli, whose right-hand man, Jim Benning, was formerly the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting. “I admire how their coach has changed the way he’s coached over the year.

“They have very good principles there. It’s not a coincidence that we’re facing each other for the reason that they’ve had good people run through there.’’

The 12-year partnership between Regier and Ruff is the foundation of the Sabres’ identity, the kind of relationship Chiarelli and Julien would like to repli cate. Regier’s philosophy: Build through the draft. Develop players in the AHL. Lock up core stars. Spend money prudently on free agents. Have a stream of NHL-ready players ready to replace the high-priced stars (Brian Campbell, Chris Drury, Danny Briere being recent examples) who become too rich for the team’s checkbook.

The 2009-10 version, which will face the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs starting tomorrow, is no different. Regier selected goaltender Ryan Miller in the fifth round of the 1999 draft, well after forgotten puck-stoppers such as Ari Ahonen, Simon Lajeunesse, and Jan Lasak were taken. The next year, the Sabres used the 220th pick to draft rugged center Paul Gaustad. In 2001, Buffalo drafted Jason Pominville with the 55th pick.

Of the Sabres’ current top six forwards, Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Tim Kennedy, and Tyler Ennis were all draft picks. Only Tim Connolly was acquired via trade (from the Islanders with Taylor Pyatt for Michael Peca on June 24, 2001). Tyler Myers, Buffalo’s No. 1 defenseman and Rookie of the Year candidate, was a first-round pick in 2008.

In comparison, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are the only top-six Bruins forwards who were drafted by their current employer. Ace defenseman Zdeno Chara was signed as a free agent, and the Bruins acquired goalie Tuukka Rask from Toronto for Andrew Raycroft.

While Myers jumped directly from juniors to the NHL, most Sabres have passed through Portland (Buffalo’s AHL affiliate) or Rochester (the farm club until 2008). Bruins assistant coach Doug Houda once patrolled the Rochester blue line. In 2002-03, Miller, Gaustad, and Pominville were Houda’s AHL teammates.

“Their philosophy was the young guys,’’ Houda said. “In Rochester, we had old guys there. We knew our job, for me, was to help the young guys. That was my job there. I still wanted to be the best down there and play really well. We wanted to win. But we knew our job down there was to help the young guys get to the National Hockey League.’’

In 2004-05, when Houda was hired as an assistant to Randy Cunneyworth in Rochester, he coached his former teammates.

“The respect factor of those kids both ways was just phenomenal,’’ Houda said. “I enjoyed playing with them. I enjoyed coaching them. Just really good guys.

“When you’re in the minors, they’re working hard to get out. They helped me as a coach to try and learn. They were very good that way, too.’’

In 2004-05, during the NHL lockout, Rochester was the hub of the Sabres’ activity. Only an hour’s drive from Buffalo (similar to Providence’s proximity to Boston), Rochester was often visited by Regier and Ruff. While the bosses watched, Cunneyworth and Houda coached an Amerks roster that included players who would become Buffalo cornerstones: Miller, Gaustad, Vanek, and Roy. Left wing Daniel Paille, who was traded to the Bruins in October, also played for Rochester in 2004-05.

“I think the lockout helped a lot of those guys,’’ Paille said. “There was a lot of AHL players at that time that played [in the NHL] the next year. That year, Pominville, Gaustad, Roy, Vanek, and Miller were all down there. Roy and Pominville didn’t even start in Buffalo the next year.’’

Rochester advanced to the second round of the playoffs. After one more season there, Houda was hired by the Bruins to serve as Lewis’s assistant for 2006-07.

“I give credit to Darcy and Lindy,’’ Houda said of the lockout year. “Lindy was down in Rochester four days a week. Darcy was down six days a week.

“I think it helped them to see what positions guys were going to play. It helped us out. It helped me as a coach. It was a big steppingstone for all of us.’’

Benning, Houda, and Paille share their Buffalo roots with others in Boston. Miroslav Satan was a Sabre for eight seasons, including 1999, when Buffalo punted the Bruins from the playoffs. Assistant coach Craig Ramsay was a career Sabre as a player, then served in management and coaching roles for the organization.

“I just really enjoyed playing and working down there,’’ Houda said. “I was fortunate to go to a great organization in Rochester, and Buffalo was really good to me, too.’’

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