The Buffalo Sabres are putting together a team of top flight players for the first time in years. They are working to assemble the best of the best available in the marketplace. They have incredible depth in all of their positions. Many fans have been disappointed that in the past this hasn’t been the business model. There have been plenty of incredible players and teams assembled in the history of the team. Today we are going to analyze the makeup of one of those teams.
The team that almost won it all. The team that surprised everyone. The 1998-99 Sabres were the pride of Buffalo and a hope after the early 90’s Bills couldn’t win a championship.
A roster of overachievers and deadline pickups produced a lot of excitement and fun. Plenty of grit and defense led to a heart-and-soul contender that was a precursor to teams like the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks.
A look at the offense of the team reveals a defensive minded group that scored a few more goals than they allowed. They were tough and agitating, while still maintaining enough discipline to get the job done. Intimidation and responsibility were the ideals held in highest regard for this group of players.
The Sabres were able to roll very balanced scoring lines throughout the season. There was no number one line. There were three strong lines and one line of grinders, agitators and enforcers to round out the team. All four lines chipped in offensively. A look at the top-9 that started the season:
|Top 9 to start season:
All three lines had scoring power and grit. The top line of Satan, Holzinger and Sanderson was blazing fast and great at shooting. Brown, Peca and Grosek could score, but they could also shut down opposing scoring lines.
Dixon Ward had a breakout season with 20 goals and 44 points, but Matthew Barnaby and Derek Plante were underachieving in 3rd line roles. They posted a combined total of 33 points through half a season and they were both shipped out. With the onset of Vaclav Varada, Barnaby was deemed expendable. Plante was a scorer, pure and simple and if he wasn’t producing, he was gone.
Enter Stu Barnes and Joe Juneau. Taking over on the line created a veteran presence and gave more scoring punch for the playoff push. Their playoff lineup looked a bit like this:
|Sabres playoff lineup:
With the toughness spread throughout the lineup and tons of scoring potential it is no wonder that there were no MVP caliber players. They were all good, but none great. Four 20 goal scorers and six 40+ point producers really made the team tick. This team may not seem loaded, but a look at the numbers and the careers of these players and it makes you realize these were not the underdogs they appeared to be.
On defense it was more of the same. Strong positional and physical play was first and foremost in team building. Offense was an added bonus, but this team had guys that could chip in offensively as well. The top pairing of Alexei Zhitnik and Jason Woolley was offensively gifted and defensively sound.
Zhitnik the puck-mover and setup man and Woolley the shooter made the powerplay potent. Adding Richard Smehlik and Darryl Shannon to the mix gives a defensively sound and offensively dangerous top-4.
Shannon’s injury prevented him from being a factor in the playoffs, but the Sabres had depth. Jay McKee, James Patrick and Mike Wilson were all very solid defenders for a bottom pairing. In order to add some more offense the Sabres sent Wilson to Florida for the tougher and slightly more offensive Rhett Warrener. With Warrener, the defense looked very balanced and something like this most nights:
|Sabres Top Defensive Pairings:
Goaltending in the 90’s was easy, it only requires one word: “Hasek”. An All-Star Game start, First-Team All-Star, Pearson, Hart and Vezina Award winner during the season, he was the best goaltender in the world. He could steal games and made sure that whatever the Sabres’ sometimes anemic offense could score would hold up.
His unorthodox style and desperation saves have been praised ad nauseam so I won’t go into too much depth. He was supported by Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron although neither played much. They didn’t play because Hasek posted career numbers. A 1.87 goals against average and a .937 save percentage are numbers that will go down in history as some of the best. The 1998-99 Sabres were a good team, Hasek made them great.
This team was a model of a low budget team. Spend your money on the most unique position. Having Hasek locked up with a big contract was the major priority. Filling in role players and budget scorers was the next step. If you look at the offense or defense it was never really about superstars, most of these players barely qualified as stars.
This team was deep, gritty, responsible and had some of the best chemistry I’ve seen. Michael Peca was one of best captains in Sabres’ history. Rob Ray and Darryl Shannon were the assistant captains, but leadership came from all over and that is what a team like this needed. A fun team and season that may not come again for a long time: the 1998-1999 Buffalo Sabres.