Last week, I was jokingly asked by a Boston Bruins fan how the weather was in Hockey Heaven, as he flashed a Milan Lucic-like grin. I thought about it for a moment, and responded, “we are currently in Player Purgatory.”
Yet, are the injuries the focal underlying issue with the Sabres struggles of late? Are we not winning games because of names like Zack Kassian, Corey Tropp, Marcus Foligno, Brayden McNabb, Colin Stuart, Paul Szczechura, TJ Brennan, Joe Finley, and Derek Whitmore? Rick Jeanneret has watched almost every single Sabres game since their inception in 1970 (aside from their inaugural season), and indicated that he has never seen such an atrocious attack of the injury bug upon the Sabres. Thus, Lindy Ruff and other use the injury excuse. The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the league in man-games lost to injuries this year, and they sure seem to be doing just fine. They absolutely torched the Sabres on Saturday. The Pens even had 2 players get their first goals against Buffalo. Montreal is 2nd in the league in man-games lost to injuries, and they are not doing quite as fine as the Pens. They decided it was time to change their bench boss.
The injuries do not explain the utter display of futility by some of our core players, namely Derek Roy and Drew Stafford. To build a case against Roy for his lack of making a difference, one only has to look back to a year ago. The Sabres were struggling at the time, and when Roy went down for the season, suddenly the Sabres went on a tear that lasted all the way up to the playoffs. Granted, he was putting up a point per game, but the Sabres were not winning consistently. The loss of Roy at that time opened up an opportunity for other players to step up and make a difference. Shortly after the Roy injury, Nathan Gerbe caught fire, as well as the admiration of many Sabres fans.
Once again, we are watching the inconsistency of Drew Stafford – the same inconsistency that has frustrated Sabres fans since 2006. It is quite possible that no other current Sabre has frustrated the fanbase more. At 26 years old, Stafford is no longer at an age where growing pains can be used as an excuse. A player gifted with so much skill and talent, and yet there are still many nights where a game goes by, and you do not even realize he was on the ice. At all. Playing on a contract year last season, he gave us gleams of hope, with 31 goals and 52 points in 62 games. Darcy Regier, who seems to harbor an inexplicable and everlasting crush with his draft picks, must have rejoiced like Dora The Explorer does when you finally find the giant mountain that has been glowing on the screen for the last 30 seconds.
Another issue, is that Pegulamania seems to have faded into the abyss. Remember the aura and attitude that blanketed Sabres fans after Pegula purchased the team? That majestic excitement that carried fans through the offseason seems to have slowly wilted, and is evident among the stands at home games. Not only has the Sabres play at home disappointed the fans; the song selections and game presentation at First Niagara Center has only further compounded and crushed that positive spirit. A decent trade and/or a coaching change would help rejuvenate the spirits, and remind us that we do have an owner that purchased the team with a vocalized committment to bringing a Stanley Cup to Buffalo. We suffered through apathy in previous ownership, this was not supposed to remain as the norm for Pegula’s Sabres.
Sabres fans remaining optimistic that the struggles will fade with the return of some of our injured starters may be operating on borderline delusion. Considering the fact that most of the AHL fill-ins have either performed at or exceeded the level of play expected of the starters they have replaced, exemplifies that the injuries may not be the problem. At the very least, it appears evident that Kassian and McNabb deserve spots in the NHL. Injuries be damned, a coach still has systems for his players to follow. If the systems are good ones, it shouldnt take much motivation for the players to follow and execute them. The 1999 version of the Sabres were not exactly overflowing with an abundance of talent, but they played their systems effectively, and added a nice touch of motivation, grit and determination.
Even our goaltending has been ineffective. This has already been well documented, discussed, and debated, so I do not feel a need to rant on this.
A typical excuse of the fanbase is that we are dying without a superstar center. You know, a playmaker in the Joe Thornton-Joe Sakic-Adam Oates mold. Someone that can center Pominville and Vanek. Is this truly the case? Last time I checked, those 2 were racking up points among the NHL leaders just fine, despite being centered by every center and winger who can play center that the Sabres have. The other lines on the team have weaved in and out of consistently contributing. Moreover, the players seem to continually get beat to loose pucks, and outworked for puck possession in all zones. Are the players just not good enough? Are they not motivated? Are the systems ineffective? All of the above? Our team has struggled against the perennial teams just as equally as it has against teams with less talent.
One thing that I believe is definitely needed, is some leadership. I like Pominville just as much as the next Sabres fan, but when I think of a team captain, I do not think of Jason Pominville. In fact, Robyn Regehr is one of the only Sabres that I envision as a true on-ice leader, but unfortunately he will not be named captain any time soon due to the whole Craig Rivet debacle. When I think back to former Sabres captains, you come up with names such as Jim Schoenfeld, Mike Ramsey, Mike Peca, Mike Foligno, Patty LaFontaine, Chris Drury, Stu Barnes…is Pominville in this mold? Is he able to hold players accountable, scold them in the locker room, push their on-ice efforts further?
I believe a change is necessary. For 15 years now, three things have remained the same: Darcy Regier as GM, Lindy Ruff as Head Coach, and the Buffalo Sabres having zero Stanley Cups. One or both of the former may need to change in order for the latter to happen.
For the last 5-8 years, we have maintained a group of “core” players: Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Paul Gaustad, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, and Ryan Miller. One or more of these players might need to move, in order for the Sabres to progress towards the players hoisiting Lord Stanley’s prize.