The complaint is common throughout Sabreland, echoing from suburban rinks to downtown offices to corner bars.
"It's the same guys. I mean, really, how in the world do they expect to be champs by trotting out the same players year after year?"
It seems like a fair question. A look at the Buffalo Sabres' roster on the eve of the 2010-11 opener reveals basically the same names as 2007-08, '08-09 and '09-10. If memory serves correctly, those three squads combined for a whopping two playoff victories.
A closer look reveals something else. The names are the same, but the people are totally different.
Jason Pominville has gone from the quiet guy who would rush to the golf course into a confident leader who split his summer between the weight room and wherever his infant son would crawl. Thomas Vanek readied himself for that chore threefold, learning twin boys were on the way to join a toddler brother. Ryan Miller used to live and breathe hockey, but he's become one of the most recognizable faces in the NHL by learning he doesn't need to immerse himself in the sport.
Throughout the dressing room, the guys are the same, yet they're not.
"We're a new team. We're a different team," center Paul Gaustad said. "Guys are older, a little more mature. You try to develop and grow a little bit as a person in the offseason, and it's a new group of guys -- young guys and old guys -- coming in.
"Guys have grown up. They've had families and matured, and I think everybody can kind of relate to that. From mid-20s to late 20s, a lot of people mature off the ice but on the ice as well. We've gotten smarter. It's handling things better, and I think guys have shown a lot of maturity."
Every training camp brings a new buzzword. This fall, "maturity" has been bouncing off the HSBC Arena walls. As Gaustad said, it makes sense. A 28-year-old sees the world and the ice differently than someone who's 22, and the Sabres have more guys pushing 30 than touching 20.
Craig Rivet sees it. The captain, who has freely spoken his mind since he stepped off the plane during the summer of 2008, isn't going to lie. The team he joined then didn't have the qualities of a Stanley Cup champion.
"Our younger guys, when I first got here a couple years ago, were maybe somewhat immature in some aspects of their game," the 36-year-old said. "Well, they're two, three years beyond that now. We're going to be looking to see these guys step up and be elite hockey players, be better hockey players.
"A lot can happen in two, 2 1/2 years. You look at their game, I think you learn from situations. You learn from not making the playoffs those two years. Moving it to the next year, we wanted to change a few things in our game, in the way we prepared as a team. I think guys did that. They've found ways to make themselves better, and that's maturity."
The excitement in the dressing room is blossoming because, when folks look around, it's the leaned-upon core that's maturing most. Miller is 30 years old. Gaustad is 28, with Pominville joining him at that number next month. Roy (27) and Vanek (26) aren't kids anymore. They are the players that matter most.
> Veterans give a boost
It takes an entire team to be elite, of course, and the additions of Rob Niedermayer and Shaone Morrisonn will complement holdovers such as Mike Grier, Tim Connolly and Tyler Myers. But the Sabres didn't dole out long-term deals and $141 million to those guys. They gave their time and money to Miller, Vanek, Pominville, Roy and Gaustad. The organization believed those were the players who could lead them to success and signed them to do so.
"We can talk as much as we want about new leadership, new guys, but I think the guys that have been here for a long time, myself included, need to step up and do more," Vanek said. "If we don't make it far, it's on myself, it's on us. You can't just bring in new guys and think they're going to fix this. I think it's going to help, but at the same time the so-called core group that has been here for a while, we have to definitely be better."
They all believe they will be improved. They are maturing into their prime together, and they feel ready to cash in that faith the organization showed in them.
"It's just one of those things where it takes time and patience," Roy said. "This year, this should be our time.
"It seems like everyone gets better every year. You look at Ryan a few years ago and you look at Ryan now. Everyone's trying to push each other to one goal, and that's to win the Stanley Cup."
The Sabres are Cup hopefuls primarily because they have the best goaltender on the planet. Miller is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and is favored to repeat. He's had potential from Day One, and he's reached that potential by expanding his horizons. Yes, that's merely another way of saying he has matured.
"Things evolve," Miller said. "You get different things from different parts of your life. I try and recharge and get away from the area [all summer] only because a lot of the base of my friends, my girlfriend, my world is in different parts of the country. I work here and I'm proud to be part of the community, but part of recharging is also balancing out and giving attention to other parts of your life.
"I'm not a goalie 365 days a year, as much as fans would expect me to be or they think I should be focusing on hockey every single day. I don't. I escape. When I'm at the rink, then I can be more in tune with what I need to be doing. I don't feel overwhelmed like I'm doing it at all times. Everyone understands the concept of vacation, and it's something that I've started to take a little more seriously. The time away allows your brain to be a little more focused on the task."
There were doubts about Miller early in his career because he couldn't let go. Goals bugged him, losses haunted him. They still do, of course, just not to the same extent.
"We're all in our late 20s now," Miller said. "We're not the kids anymore. We're out of that stage. We've seen a lot. We've gone through a lot, so I guess the highs and lows are a little different.
"There's not as much that's going to be new. The excitement level's a little different. You know that it's a grind, you know what to expect. It's just about getting the rest in the summer, getting prepared, and coming in in shape and building for that long haul. There's ups and downs, and you know that's going to happen, so you just do your business."
> Miller not alone
Miller has company in evolving into a more all-around person and player.
Roy has paced the Sabres in points for three straight seasons. Although the totals have declined each year, the center feels he's a better player now because the opponents' points against him have dropped, too. Gaustad has grown from the youngster trying to mimic Chris Drury's work ethic into the veteran who challenges others in faceoffs long after practice has ended. Pominville wants the extra, crucial minutes during a game, and he's earned them by progressing on the power play and penalty kill.
It hasn't always been easy or fun to watch, but the Sabres feel the portrait of a champion is finally being painted.
"You're always going to have your growing pains," Rivet said. "Unfortunately, not everyone is a Sidney Crosby or an [Alexander] Ovechkin that can come into the league at 18, 19 years old and basically dominate the game right from the get-go. For a lot of players, it's going to take them time to have these ups and downs in their game, and that's the growing pains of becoming a good hockey player.
"I think that we have some guys that are outstanding hockey players that are maturing in ways that are going to make them better."
As much as the players have changed over the past few years, they will readily admit to being the same old Sabres in several ways. They still hang out, still share great times that best friends will always remember.
Most importantly, they still believe they are the right guys to bring a championship to Buffalo.
"We have trust in each other," Gaustad said. "It's a process. It really is, and it's tough. It is a process, but our goal is the Stanley Cup. That hasn't changed. That's what we want."