Some of Lindy Ruff's top players are skating half a world away. The Buffalo Sabres' coach has no idea how Tyler Ennis looks in Switzerland. Ruff doesn't have an inkling how Christian Ehrhoff is spending his time in Germany.
Still, Ruff would rather have his players compete in Europe than practice in Amherst.
The number of Sabres playing for foreign teams is expected to rise this week. Thomas Vanek is going to sign in Graz, one of the Austrian towns in which he grew up. Andrej Sekera went to Slovakia after Ehrhoff and Ennis boarded their transatlantic flights.
Ruff is glad they decided to ditch the informal workouts being done locally by other locked-out Sabres.
"My feeling is if you can play, play, whether you're a half a world away or not," Ruff said. "Playing's a good thing. You can keep your skills sharp.
"I worry more about the guys that are, after a month or so, just playing a little bit of shinny hockey and practicing a little bit. It's tough to stay sharp. You don't have that physical challenge. You don't have the challenge of elite players playing against you, and I think those players have a bigger challenge than those guys that are going and playing."
There's still no word on whether the Sabres will all play together, but the NHL moved one day closer to canceling or postponing regular-season games Monday.
Representatives from the league and the NHL Players' Association took a break from meetings but are scheduled to resume talks today. The sides are $1 billion apart regarding how much the players should earn in the next collective bargaining agreement, and the scheduled Oct. 11 opening of the season is rapidly approaching. The league is expected to whack an early chunk of the schedule as soon as today.
If the lockout does end, Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier agrees with his coach that the players skating for teams will be more prepared than their counterparts who are practicing on their own.
"Hopefully, we get back to playing soon, but whenever that's going to be everyone expects there to be very little time to get up and going," Regier said. "It gives anyone who's playing an advantage, certainly, whether they're playing in Europe or playing in the American League in Rochester."
Vanek is joining the list of players in Europe. His website posted an interview Monday in which he stated he was going to skate for the Graz 99ers. He had been torn whether to stay in Buffalo with his wife and three young children, uproot the family and go overseas or depart on his own. His website said he was going by himself to Graz, which is where his parents live.
Ruff, meanwhile, plans to spend his days observing the Amerks. He got to know Vanek, Derek Roy and Ryan Miller in Rochester during the 2004-05 lockout, and Ruff will skate alongside the Sabres' minor-leaguers again. He and Amerks coach Ron Rolston are designing a system for both teams that would result in seamless recalls.
"We've spent several hours in the last couple weeks in meetings with Ron and his staff and our staff just trying to get together how we'd like both teams to play, so when they come here there really isn't much of an education process," Ruff said. "Some subtleties will have to be different when it comes to personnel on special teams, but a system that works for both teams."
Ruff's team will be a lot different than the one he had last season. Roy is gone, replaced by Steve Ott.
"If you look at Derek's ice time you know what I thought of him as a player because he led our team in ice time," Ruff said. "I think he had a real tough stretch. He dealt with some tough injuries. Asked probably a little bit more in some situations. During our run at the end of the year, he was a big part of it. Pushed hard to have us play with a little bit more of an edge.
"We're going to miss his playmaking, but in Derek's case he probably thinks it's a new look for him knowing he was a big part of our team."
The trade left the Sabres extremely young at center, with the 22-year-old duo of Ennis and Cody Hodgson expected to anchor the top two lines.
"We've taken a step that has put us in a little bit of a scary category because we're young there," Ruff said. "We've got Tyler that probably finished the last 30 games playing center ice but did a heck of a job. We feel that his work on the faceoff dot has to improve, some of his defensive responsibilities are going to have to get a little bit bigger, but we think he can get the job done.
"I think there's where we have a little versatility with Ville [Leino]. We've got some versatility with Steve Ott in the middle of the ice."
Ruff is glad to have Ott, who brings the toughness and tenacity the Sabres have lacked. The coach says plugging the forward into the lineup with fellow newcomer John Scott and holdovers Cody McCormick and Patrick Kaleta should raise the team's intensity level.
"In our case we wanted to be a harder team to play against," Ruff said. "We wanted to be more physical. I think we're still going to need our better offensive players to have a little bit of a physical edge, and I think if they're backed by a Scott and an Ott and the likes of that, now you've got McCormick and Kaleta, the strength of all 12 guys, that level should be raised.
"You just hope for a quick resolution [to the lockout] and get this going."