As anyone who writes about professional sports will tell you, good writers spend far more time reading other sources of information than they actually spend writing, and lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about the Buffalo Sabres.
History tells me this is not a good thing. There are only two times that the Buffalo Sabres are featured by major news outlets such as Sports Illustrated: when they are playing really well, or when they are an absolute disaster on the ice. The Sabres are not the sort of team that get press just for being an interesting franchise; they just are not media darlings. As a matter of fact, I have detected a trace of satisfaction in some of the pieces documenting the Sabres’ poor play this season, almost as if some members of the media actually enjoy seeing the Sabres lose. I won’t name names, because I like to think professional writers are above that (snicker, snicker), but that’s the vibe I have gotten.
Suffice it to say, when the Sabres are not playing well, an awful lot of writers want to take an interest in the team, and right now, the Sabres are getting an awful lot of press. Most of the writing you can find on the Internet regarding the Sabres these days is being done by writers who are recommending the organization essentially give up any ill-conceived notions of making the playoffs and begin shopping players such as Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, and Jason Pominville, all of who are set to become free agents at the end of next year. This, despite the fact that the Sabres are only five points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Now, many fans of the Sabres are convinced that it’s time to have a firesale and start shipping out players in order to secure 1st and 2nd round picks in the up-coming draft. Hell, even the Sabres players are sounding like a bunch of sad sacks, with Ryan Miller going on record as saying, “Do we become a younger team or do we become a team that’s going to build and try to get this core group of guys a chance to move forward? Or are we not the core anymore? Who knows?” and Thomas Vanek adding, “It’s always in the back of your mind. Stay here or move on? At the end of the day, it’s the team’s decision. I haven’t heard from them. But, yeah, you think about different situations.”
That’s the spirit! Act as if the season is over, instead of using your brain and telling any reporter who hounds you about trade rumors, “No comment.”
Contrast this sort of defeated attitude with the attitude on display in none other than Columbus, Ohio. The Blue Jackets are also being written about over on SI.com, but despite the fact that they have a record very similar to that of Buffalo (the Blue Jackets are 10-12-6; the Sabres, 10-14-3) the folks over at SI are not calling for the team to be gutted. In fact, the article is doing the exact opposite: marveling at the fact that the perennially-woeful Blue Jackets are actually playing good hockey right now, and are a mere 3 points behind Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot. Huh. How about that? A team with only ten wins – the same total as Buffalo – is being praised as being a “tough team to play against” and “well-rounded.”
What is it, exactly, about these Blue Jackets that seem to give people hope that they might be able to reach the playoffs? According to the article, there are three factors fueling their recent stretch of good play: hot goaltending; a roster full of over-achieving, supposed has-been and unknown players; and a coach who gets his team to work harder than any other team in the NHL. I would add a fourth factor: a positive, never-say-die attitude.
Meanwhile, the Sabres, a team that has had great goaltending this year and that recently played a stretch of seven straight games that were only decided by one goal, seem to have everyone thinking they are done for this year and need to make some serious personnel changes to get ready for the future – including some of the players themselves.
A few weeks ago, I was accused of being too negative when I ripped the Sabres for allowing back-to-back games in which they held a lead in the third period slip away from them. Yet all I have been hearing and reading from fans of the blue and gold lately is extremely negative, “forget this season” garbage. I think it’s time for Sabres fans, and many of the Sabres players, to think again. The season is not over, and the Sabres lack only a few pieces that would make them playoff-ready this year, pieces that could easily be acquired if GM Darcy Regier would pull his head out of the sand long enough to do his job. If the Sabres choose to rebuild during the off-season, that is fine by me, but I think it is a shame that so many people are ready to give up on a season that still has 21 games remaining. I expect this team to fight for their playoff lives, not resign themselves to the fact that “There is always next year.” After all, fighting tooth and nail to make it into the playoffs is the job of every single player on this team. I don’t get to tell my boss, “Ah, I’ll teach my students next year,” and I don’t buy Sabres tickets and merchandise just to see them quit with over 1/3 of the season remaining. Moves can be made in the off-season; right now, the only question the Sabres organization should be asking itself is, “How do we make up those five points?” – and then the organization needs to actually go DO SOMETHING to make that happen.
I think the director of hockey operations for the Blue Jackets, John Davidson, said it best. When asked if playing winning hockey would put him in the awkward position of having to decide between making some moves to acquire players for a playoff run, or trading some veterans in order to gain picks for the upcoming draft, Davidson responded, “Winning is never awkward.” No – but giving up on a season is. I never thought I would say it, but it’s time for the Buffalo Sabres organization to learn a lesson from the Columbus Blue Jackets: winning is never awkward, so get back to the business of figuring out how to win games, now.