Any Sabres fan will tell you that the last month (and most of the season) has been a real trial. Haven’t the Sabres faithful already proven enough to this club? 40 seasons without a Cup. Sharp left turns like the Goathead era and the Slug debacle. Free agent departures and superstars traded away. Tim Connolly.
This team has gone through injury after injury, yet the call-ups from Rochester have played beyond expectation. The off-season saw more addition than subtraction, plugging in a high octane defense, and bringing in a player in Ville Leino that is Mister Clutch in the playoffs. Of course, that is useless if the team doesn’t get to the post-season.
Through it all, it seems that the talent on the ice has been ho-hum. Lackluster. Milquetoast. And whether fans believe Lindy Ruff’s message has grown stale, or that Jason Pominville is not a leader, or that Ryan Miller wants to go to Hollywood, one thing is certain; this team suffers a disturbing lack of heart. But why?
I boil everything down to the identity of the team and the roles of the players. Neither of which is well defined.
In the 90’s the Sabres were known as the “hardest working team in hockey.” They were a group of under-skilled, outmatched players that would be tough to go against and could ride a hot goaltender into the playoffs. That identity has all but vanished, and much of the issue is that it hasn’t been replaced by much of anything.
At the same time, who on this team plays what role? Sure, Thomas Vanek is the goal scorer’s goal scorer. Jason Pominville is his co-pilot and the captain of the squad. But tell me…who is the #2 right winger? Or the second line left wing? Who is the checking line? Is there a shutdown pair of defenders, like Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder were known? Is there a quarterback for the power play. If the Sabres are down by one goal with a minute left to play, what players (besides Vanek and Pominville) absolutely need to be out on the ice? And which guys do you send out to, you know, take care of some business and get a little bit nasty?
I ask these questions because I legitimately don’t know. It’s not that the team is awful…it’s that there are a lot of guys that can work in those positions, but none who make it their own. Nobody on this roster seems to want to seize the under-appreciated role and run with it. In the past it was easy. Paul Gaustad was your checking line center who would win draws, squeeze out along the boards, and park his body in front of the net. Mike Grier would hit everything that moved, dump the puck and chase it, and give advice and encouragement on the bench. Jordan Leopold was the go-to veteran defender last year, who stepped up and led the younger blue liners.
Now the team is a complete mish-mash. Drew Stafford was kinda sorta supposed to be the next big thing on right wing, but his patented “throw a backhand from the boards and don’t get the rebound” makes him look like a fourth line plugger. Cody McCormick was a dynamite fourth line center last year, and this year he’s been spotted skating with Derek Roy and Luke Adam (both of them centers) on occasion.
For that matter, what about Luke Adam? Is he a first line center or a third liner? And if he’s down on the third line, where does that put Paul Gaustad? Or how about Nathan Gerbe? Wasn’t he a goal scorer in Rochester? Why exactly has he been relegated to the role of Tim Kennedy 2.0?
You’ve got Jochen Hecht, a defensive forward and natural left wing, centering Pominville and Vanek since he’s been healthy. Roy tends to center between Stafford and the left wing of the week, who was Ville Leino until he dove in to the injury pool. Leino, meanwhile, was signed to be a top center only to find that he was much more comfortable as a winger…which is exactly the same story as Brad Boyes. Funny, twice in one year Darcy Regier has tried to address the pressing need for a top center by signing a guy who can be a suitable, temporary replacement for a center. Both times it’s resulted in that player (Boyes and Leino) being assigned to the wing, then assigned to lower and lower ice times, and fans calling for their buyouts or trades.
Take a look at the defense, if you can stomach it. Last year it was Myers/Sekera, Leopold/Weber, Montador/Butler with Morrisonn thrown in the mix. Since bolstering the blue line with Robyn Regerh and Christian Ehrhoff, Leopold’s role has been reduced and one can’t help but feel that his days as a Sabre are numbered. I’m sure that isn’t doing wonders for his want to teach the younger defense. Myers was a complete mess until he was sidelined with injury, while Regehr has been one half of a shutdown pair with whatever rookie has been playing along side him. Ehrhoff is at the same time the best penalty killer and the best power play defender, effectively bowling over Marc-Andre Gragnani from the role on special teams that was cut out for him.
To bounce to special teams real quick, Pat Kaleta is one of the team’s best penalty killers, which earns him more ice time in the eyes of Lindy Ruff. When given that ice time, Kaleta has recently been found skating on what could be called a scoring line with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford. Though scoring line implies that that would ever put the puck in the net. By the way, yes, that would be two right wings and a center. Why? Because this season is silly, that’s why.
Is your head spinning yet? Can you see why the string of injuries, the cap issues and resulting rotation of call-ups, and lack of role players could easily be the cause of this team skating without a purpose most nights? Because it’s pretty obvious to me. Aside from Vanek and Pominville who are the top 6 fowards on the team? If you go by years past and/or salary, you come up with Drew Stafford, Derek Roy, Brad Boyes, Ville Leino, Tyler Ennis, and Jochen Hecht. Then Luke Adam and Zack Kassian are banging on the door to be let in to that tier. You’re splitting ice time between a lot of guys who need over 10 minutes per night to score around 20 goals, and you’ve still only got 60 minutes of regulation to work with.
It’s called a logjam. Too damn many above average but not great players floating without proper ice time is going to lead them all to under-perform. Take a 25 goal scorer and cut his minutes by 10%, he’ll become a 20 goal scorer. Take a speedy left winger and place him on the only true checking line with Gaustad and Kaleta, and watch Nathan Gerbe fail to score any points.
There is no true shutdown pair of defenders. The entire defense aims to score, save for Weber and Regehr who rarely play together. The true fourth liners of the team, being Matt Ellis, Cody McCormick, and Pat Kaleta (yes, I’m aware I listed him as a third liner…see the problem) never play together and thus never play their role.
The team has been reduced to a hodge-podge of players scrambling to get the puck. And when Derek Roy gets it, he looks to his left and sees Matt Ellis with hands of wood. He looks to his right and sees Drew Stafford who doesn’t look like he cares at all. And so Derek chooses to try to skate through four defenders. Again. And when they strip him of the puck, Gragnani or Ehrhoff gets caught trying to pinch because they think offensively, and Leopold gets stuck on a 2-on-1.
Change the names, change the play, the result is the same. This team doesn’t play hockey right now, they play “chase the puck.” Maybe you can blame Ruff for constantly tweaking the lines, or maybe you can blame Regier for fielding a team of second line players. Either way, time is running out in the season for this team and these players to decide who they are. We are coming dangerously close to that time when the solution is just to let the majority flush out when their contracts are up.
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