BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Sabres returned home bruised and beaten, with nothing but a long, uncertain summer ahead of them.
Eliminated from the playoffs' first round in five games by the Philadelphia Flyers, the Sabres' break will be their longest since missing the postseason altogether in 1996. And it will feel especially lengthy after Buffalo reached the Stanley Cup finals last June.
"It feels like it's over," coach Lindy Ruff said after the Sabres' season ended with a 5-2 loss Thursday night in Philadelphia. "That's a feeling you have to remember when you get ready to play next year,"
The question is what the Sabres will look like when they finally return to the ice a little over four months from now. While goalie Dominik Hasek has changed his mind on his retirement plans, committing to return for one more year, the club faces numerous other roster hurdles.
Along with potentially losing players in June's expansion draft, the Sabres have a number of key personnel eligible for free agency.
Headed by captain Michael Peca, the list of potential Sabre free agents includes core defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Jason Woolley, forwards Vladimir Tsyplakov, Dixon Ward, Erik Rasmussen and Rob Ray, and second-string goalie Martin Biron.
Many of the players, including Peca, are eligible to become restricted free agents, meaning the Sabres have the right to re-sign them should another team make an offer.
Ray's status is completely up in the air. The Sabres, who hold the option on whether to re-sign Ray for one more year, might be bidding their longtime stalwart goodbye after 11 seasons with the club. His role diminished to the point where he did not appear in one playoff game.
It's difficult to predict what the Sabres will do, or how much money they will be willing to spend. Along with Hasek set to make $9.25 million next season, the Sabres also added Doug Gilmour's hefty contract to their payroll when they acquired him from Chicago in March. Gilmour is set to make $6 million next year.
At the end of the regular season, the Buffalo payroll totaled over $40 million, expensive for a team that finished 36-40-11 (including playoffs) and eked into the playoffs on the final day.
It was a far cry from where the team was expected to finish after last year's postseason success.
"It was definitely a season with a lot of ups and downs," Ruff said. "We struggled like crazy to get in to (the playoffs) and just did not get it done in this series."
Peca went beyond that.
"Anytime you don't improve on the year before when you feel you have a stronger team, it is disappointing," he said.
Given Good Friday off, the Sabres players will show up one last time at HSBC Arena on Saturday to pack up their gear and undergo in end of season physicals.
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