Attempting To Pinpoint Sabres' Problems

The Buffalo Sabres are coming off yet another home ice loss, a 4-1 defeat at the hands of former Sabre, and lovable motor-mouth, Martin Biron and the New York Rangers. This drops the Sabres to 7-9-2 at home, and still leaves them seventh in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of first, but just six points up on 13th-place Tampa Bay Lightning.

This story line is getting old. Fast.

The Sabres are on a streak which has seen them lose nine out of their last 13 games, while the rest of the league seems to be sorting out who can be considered legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup.

Before this year began, many (myself included) were banging the drum for this Buffalo hockey team as one with a real chance at doing some damage at the spring dance. The Sabres may not have left with the girl, but they’ll be damned if they don’t at least slow dance with half the barn. Off the ice, the team (and it’s fans) had a brand new sugar daddy, Terry Pegula, who would probably bury one-third of his $3 billion fortune under the Sabres logo at center ice, if it meant the Sabres would win the Stanley Cup, once and for all. On the ice, the additions of Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff (two of the most sought after free agents this past summer), and Robyn Regehr (who spent his entire NHL playing career in frozen Alberta, playing for the Calgary Flames, and agreed to waive his no-trade clause because he caved in, uh, I mean, believed in Pegula’s persistence, uh, I mean, vision) were supposed to be most of the missing pieces to a good, but not good enough, hockey team.

Thus far, these players have been a mixed bag, to say the least. But, they’re not alone.

This writer has never, and will never, be accused of jumping on and off the bandwagon when it comes to his hometown hockey team. Am I supposed to be objective, and cover the games and teams as if I don’t have a stake in it? Sure, I am. But as a lifelong, die-hard, good times and bad, nut job of a Buffalo Sabres supporter for over 30 years, I will not be ashamed to put my entire soul into wanting them to win 82 games a year, and hoist the Cup finally.

Conversely, I am certainly not adverse to ripping them to shreds during a ten-minute tirade to who ever has the bad luck of being within earshot of my very opinionated mouth after an ugly loss (or nine). I ride the wave, people. And this 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres team is most definitely not a Tsunami ready to destroy the rest of the league in it’s path.

However, as I sit in front of my keyboard trying desperately to find the words to describe this hockey team’s state right now, I am conflicted to say the least.

They are a team who have had more injuries than anyone in the league this season. If you include Jochen Hecht, who started the year on the shelf with a concussion, the Sabres haven’t iced a full team all year. Derek Roy, who I’d gladly package in a trade with another key piece if it meant finally acquiring that much desired “number one center“, played through some injuries for the first 10 games or so, and has put up some points since he declared himself finally healthy. The wounded list has included, at one time or another, but mostly all at once: Hecht, Drew Stafford (aka, the other “key piece”), Nathan Gerbe, Patrick Kaleta, Ryan Miller, Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr, Brad Boyes, Paul Gaustad, Cody McCormick, Tyler Ennis (aka, possibly another “key piece”), Mike Weber and Corey Tropp.

At various levels of importance, each one of these players brings something to the Sabres that they have been missing for every single game this season. Whether it’s offensive creativity, defensive spine, physicality, or the ability to stop the puck, the Sabres haven’t had all of their engines running at once. The team has had to plug these holes with rookies and/or career minor league journeymen, thus begging the question:

What would this hockey team look like when they have a whole roster of healthy bodies?

Now, I know, no team has a whole shelf full of healthy players to choose from all season long. But, no team has had a run of injuries comparable to the Sabres, either. Coach Lindy Ruff has had to construct countless line combinations and defensive pairings this year, sometimes shift to shift, in an attempt to find some sort of cohesiveness. Some of this is due to just plain awful play, but mostly because of bumps, bruises, concussions, knees, ankles, wrists and shoulders.

Are these excuses? Is this  a crutch that this organization will use when things aren’t going their way, which clearly they are not?

Or should these players be professionals, able to adapt to the situation, no matter who Ruff lines them up with?

Or should some of these players cease and desist making poor decisions and blind passes, and start playing a simple, chip-it-out-off-the-glass-if-a-play-ain’t-there-dammit (!) brand of hockey?

All of the above, perhaps?

Or Is this even their fault?

Ruff has professed his love of the Detroit Red Wings‘, Mike Babcock-influenced, “puck possession” style of play. Is Lindy telling his players not to give the puck up, to make a play or find a teammate to pass the puck to at all times, no matter what? Don’t chip it out, or dump it into the neutral zone! That’s giving the puck back to them!

Hey, Coach. Last time I checked, your team didn’t have a Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula or, for crying out loud, Niklas Lidstrom listed on the roster.

How many times do I have to watch Marc-Andre Gragnani make some ridiculous, up-the-gut, no-chance-in-a-million-years pass, only to have it picked off? Probably about as many times as I’ve had to endure watching Andrej Sekera try and skate the puck out of his own end with a guy hanging all over him, and another bearing down on him, only to have him, yes, lose the puck? And these two aren’t the only guilty ones, to be sure. Every time these things occur, it seems to always result in  a goal against, or the Sabres being pinned in their end for what seems like an eternity.

I have never played the game of hockey professionally, semi-professionally or even in a beer league. I have, however, watched the game obsessively for over 30 years, and grew up around the sport, in one form or another. If all other sports ceased to exist, leaving only ice hockey, I would still be happy as a pig in Sean Avery. I love, and understand, the game. Lindy Ruff I am not, but even I can see that there comes a time when you just have to chip the puck out or dump it into the neutral zone, and give your team a chance to regroup and set up again. Or, for the love of Crosby (well, everyone seems to think he’s a God), ice the puck. Live for another day.

I watched the New York Rangers do these things countless times on Saturday night, enroute to a 4-1 victory. The game was even in just about every single category (shots, face-offs, hits, scoring chances), but the Rags buried their chances and, more importantly, didn’t put themselves in situations they couldn’t escape from.

And that’s where the Buffalo Sabres are now, and have been for much of the season.

They are in a place they cannot escape from, until their poor puck management improves greatly.

We can’t pin this bad run on injuries. Some of the rookies that have driven in from AHL Rochester (Zack KassianBrayden McNabb and Corey Tropp), albeit in limited time, have given this team much more than some of the veterans have. Kassian (who gives the Sabres what they have needed, a player with nastiness and considerable skill) and McNabb should find permanent places to live here in Buffalo, even when the Sabres have a full plate of healthy players. These two players should give General Manager Darcy Regier the confidence to deal a player (or three) from his “beloved core”.

Because, no matter what you or I think the problem, or problems, may be, the time for patience should be running thin. Regier has always preached patience, to a fault. Team President Ted Black has said that Darcy and Lindy are safe. We’re almost 30 games in, approaching the halfway point of the regular season, and nothing is getting better.

If the coach and/or general manager are staying put, then the on-ice product needs an enema. Whether it’s endless brain cramps (giveaways, atrocious passing, etc), style of play (puck possession, or a live-for-another-day style?), or style of players (too many players of the same ilk, disinterested players, or guys who are a little too comfortable here), something(s) has to change.

The Sabres are 15-12-2. Yes, it could always be much worse. But, they are sitting seventh in the East, a place they always seem to be, year in and year out.

And I don’t think Terry Pegula has any interest in treading water because, no matter how good of swimmers they think they may be down at 1 Seymour Knox III Plaza, they always end up drowning in the end.



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Tags: Brad Boyes Brayden Mcnabb Buffalo Sabres Christian Ehrhoff Cody Mccormick Corey Tropp Darcy Regier Derek Roy Detroit Red Wings Lindy Ruff Mike Babcock New York Rangers Patrick Kaleta Paul Gaustad Robyn Regehr Ryan Miller Sabres Stanley Cup Tampa Bay Lightning Ted Black Terry Pegula Tyler Ennis Tyler Myers Ville Leino Zack Kassian

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