If you’ve been following the Buffalo Sabres closely the last few years, you may have heard the dreaded “s”-word applied to the team more often than you would like. Of course, depending on who you are reading or listening to, the word “soft” might be one of the kinder adjectives used to describe the boys in blue and gold; I just dug up an article from May of 2012 that describes the Sabres as being “soft,” “mentally fragile,” “gutless,” “cowardly,” “passive,” having “no pride,” and being “effeminate, undersized pretty boys.” Yep – all of those descriptions were bandied about in just one piece of writing.
Now, I won’t bother giving that article any more press than I just gave it, which is why I didn’t provide a link to it. In my opinion, the article is more the ravings of a disappointed fan than the work of a writer who is trying to be honest, yet objective. Still, it certainly isn’t the only example one can find of people questioning the toughness of boys from Buffalo, and Sabres fans need only watch the following video to be reminded of one of, if not THE, largest reasons why the label “soft” has been applied to the Sabres organization:
I cannot think of anyone who believed that the Sabres did right by Ryan Miller that evening; I don’t love the fighting in hockey, but after a hit like that, someone needed to step up and put Milan Lucic on his rear. There’s no nice way to put it: the Sabres backed down that night, and then spent most of the regular season doing nothing to show their critics they were anything but soft, losing twelve road games in a row at one point and netting a pathetic 90 goals on the road ALL SEASON LONG. (Those 90 road goals means Buffalo, a team that was tied for 9th in goals scored at home last season, ranked 27th in the league in goals scored on the road. Ugh.) Those are definitely not the signs of a team that is mentally and physically tough.
Hence, the acquisitions of Steve Ott from Dallas – a great team leader, fantastic penalty killer, and a junkyard dog ready to defend his turf – and John Scott, he of the career totals of one goal, five points, and 236 penalty minutes. Clearly, concern over goal-scoring was not what prompted Sabres GM Darcy Regier to go out and get these guys. Both Ott and Scott – sorry for the rhyming – are going to bring a physical presence to the ice every shift they skate, and Ott especially will be expected to motivate his teammates and help them adopt a tough, “warrior” mentality.
Will adding these two guys to the locker room be enough, though? Any infusion of toughness is a welcome addition, but in order to transform a supposedly soft team into a physically and mentally tough squad that won’t wilt on the road or back down from a challenge – in order to truly change marshmallow into muscle – an organization needs to do more than just bring in two tough guys. Even with the addition of Ott and Scott, the overwhelming majority of the Sabres are not physical players. Years of honing your skills, acquiring a style of play, and developing your mindset are not going to be undone simply because the organization brings in two players with a much more physical approach to the game. Plus, for better or for worse, Lindy Ruff has never been able to instill the toughness he displayed as a player in the teams he has coached. Whether that’s due to the type of players he’s handed, the fact that he’s mellowing as he ages, or because global warming is melting his resolve like butter on a hot stove, your guess is as good as mine. I do know he never even attempted to match up any of the Sabres more physical players with Lucic after the collision with Miller, so it is worth wondering how a player like John Scott will be utilized by Ruff; having a tough guy doesn’t do you any good if you never pair him up against the opponent you’re trying to send a message to.
I certainly don’t want the Sabres to try and copy the style of play the Flyers resorted to last year in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, since that ultimately blew up in their faces against a much more disciplined Devils team. Even so, I think if the Sabres are finally making a serious attempt to address a legitimate concern, they helped themselves tremendously by bringing in these two guys. It may not result in a long-term change in mindset, but adding a more rugged element to the team might be what it takes for the Sabres to keep their intensity up in this shortened, and insanely chaotic, season.