Two words can sum up this season for the Buffalo Sabres: injury and inconsistency. The team saw a lot of both, which combined for a not-so-pleasant (and early) end to their season. As the players cleaned out their lockers at the First Niagara Center on Monday and NHL playoffs begin on Wednesday, there’s only two things to do now: look back briefly before looking ahead to the off-season and the future.
Injuries began even before the regular season, as Jochen Hecht never even got to suit up for a game that counted due to concussion issues. From there, it only went downhill with the injuries.
Nearly EVERY player missed at least one game due to injury. Brad Boyes missed a total of 15 games due to lower and upper body injuries in November and February. Matt Ellis also suffered a lower body injury that kept him out in March. Tyler Ennis missed 34 games due to an ankle injury that plagued him from October to early December and then flared up in late December and early January.
The list goes on. Nathan Gerbe, 11 games, upper body. Patrick Kaleta, 15 games, upper and lower body injuries. Ville Leino, out 10 games. Cody McCormick, 15 games. Derek Roy, upper body, 2 games. Drew Stafford, illness and lower body – 2 games. Thomas Vanek, upper body, four games. Even AHL call-ups weren’t safe, as forward Corey Tropp suffered an upper body injury and missed ten games.
And those are just the forwards. Don’t forget Christian Ehrhoff missing a total of 16 games due to injury, Jordan Leopold’s upper body injury that kept him out for three games in December, or Tyler Myers’ fractured foot and broken wrist that made him an injured scratch for 23 games this season. Robyn Regehr’s upper body issues (six games), Andrej Sekera’s upper body injury and pneumonia (13 games) and Mike Weber’s upper body injury just add to the damaged blueline.
Injuries can’t be an excuse for a team’s poor record – but they can certainly be an important factor, especially when some of the bigger players are injured and just as one returns, another goes down. Although the core group of AHL players are impressive and did very well in their call-ups this year, they simply can’t substitute for the NHL experience the standard players bring to the table, especially going into the playoffs.
There’s no doubt that defensemen Brayden McNabb and T.J. Brennan are great players, but could they really fill the places of Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff, who would both have missed at least the first round of the playoffs? Paul Szczechura, Corey Tropp and Marcus Foligno are also strong minor-leaguers, but there’s only so much help they can bring.
As October rolled around, the season really did appear to start off well. Buffalo won both of their regular season games overseas in Finland and Germany, but coming back to home soil gave them their first loss in the First Niagara Center. A three-game win streak helped put them in a good position, and they ended the month 6-4. November was 7-6-1, but the team couldn’t find any consistency at home that month. Back-to-back games on all four of the Fridays/Saturdays that month was certainly a challenge: the Sabres won both of the first back-to-back series games, but in all three others, they lost one and won the other.
December was arguably one of the worst months for the Sabres, as they won just four of the fourteen games that month and couldn’t put together back-to-back wins. One of the losses was a crushing 8-3 away loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins just before the holidays – the most goals Buffalo allowed at any point this season.
As injuries continued to plague the team, January approached. Buffalo was mostly on the road this month, playing just three games at home and winning two of those. However, they only won four of twelve games total that month and went on five-game losing stand in the middle of January to put a little squeeze on their playoff hopes and standings.
February saw the Sabres put together two three-game winning streaks. Pretty impressive for a team who had struggled most of the season – and was still continuing to struggle – with injuries. Buffalo had nine home games that month and won four of them, gaining a point in an additional four games. They ended the month, and began March, with a Western road trip that saw them put together three consecutive wins once again, including back-to-back shutouts against Anaheim and San Jose.
The introductions of Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer, combined with the departures of Paul Gaustad, Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani, brought a new look to the Sabres’ line-up. Initially, Hodgson would have a little trouble finding his chemistry on the new squad, but looking to the future, it’s possible that he can build such chemistry with players on the team for the new season.
March proved to be the Sabres’ busiest month as they played sixteen games in 31 days – with only two sets of back-to-backs. The month was, once again, inconsistent, as the Sabres would win 7-3 in Tampa Bay (yay goals!) and beat fellow playoff contender Washington, but end the month with a heart-breaking loss in Toronto to really put a strain on the playoff hopes. The introduction of rookie Marcus Foligno that month would prove to be a great move; he tallied six goals and seven assists in fourteen games, and his chemistry on a line with Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford was unstoppable.
April could have been crucial to the Sabres. It started off well, with a 6-5 overtime win over Toronto at home which was back-and-forth and never ending. Despite the win, a 2-1 loss to the Flyers in the next game (combined with a Washington win that same night) would end the Sabres’ playoff hopes for the season. They tied up the season with a 4-3 shootout loss to Boston, and… that’s all, folks.
Looking ahead, who knows what’s in store for the team? Will coach Lindy Ruff remain behind the bench for next season, or will Terry Pegula replace him? Free agency could also be interesting – lots of fans may talk about re-signing center Paul Gaustad, but will it actually happen? Will we actually play TWO goalies next year instead of overworking Ryan Miller? Questions will become answers.
The Sabres have quite a few of their own free agents to be concerned about come July 1st. Brad Boyes, Jochen Hecht, Alexander Sulzer, Ales Kotalik, Shaone Morrisonn, David Leggio, Derek Whitmore, Colin Stuart, Travis Turnbull, Michael Ryan and Drew MacIntyre will all be unrestricted free agents. Dennis Persson, Paul Szczechura, Alex Biega, Drew Schiestel, T.J. Brennan, Tyler Ennis and Patrick Kaleta all fall under the restricted free agents category. GM Darcy Regier has a lot of work to do.
So what did we learn this season? Playing inconsistently won’t help anyone, especially in key division or conference-rival matchups. Injuries hurt, but can only go so far as an excuse. Everyone needs to step up and speak out, and when training camp rolls around in September – well, we’ll see what happens.