I grew up and spent the first 17 years of my life in Buffalo, New York. I have grown to love everything about the city, its people, its food, its architecture, its weather and its sports teams. The past six years I have been living in the New York metro area and have still stayed as passionate as I have ever been about Buffalo, mainly through its two sports teams, The Bills and the Sabres. Times have not been to great for the Bills, but the Sabres have been fun for the better part of this past decade. As any hockey fan would know, the Sabres were bought last Spring by billionaire Terry Pegula. Pegula, a lifetime Sabres fan with ties to the WNY region, promised change, he promised success, that Buffalo would become a preferred destination for players, and mainly that the only thing that mattered to him was winning a Stanley Cup…no matter the cost.
That message is one that any fan of any organization would drool over, but in Buffalo it meant more. It meant that finally in our sad sports history, we had a guy who would lead us to that seemingly unreachable championship. Then came the off-season. Pegula did what he promised and opened up his fat wallet and spent money in the free agent market. There was the trade for physical defenseman Robyn Regehr, the signing of skilled defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and the signing of up and coming winger Ville Leino. Granted he probably paid them a bit above market value, but that was besides the point. We already had what we thought was a solid core and foundation built, these new players would merely come in and fill holes that we had, cost wasn’t an issue.
The season started and things were going fairly well, nothing spectacular, but they were right where many expected them to be with a slew of new players getting used to playing together. The Sabres won ten of their first fifteen games, finding themselves in the middle pack of the playoff picture. Fans were happy, but not elated, and expected things only to get better. Then came November 12, 2011. This day may be one that goes down in Sabres infamy, one that saw them heading to Boston for a Saturday night match up with the Bruins. The game was going fine until Milan Lucic came barreling full speed into Ryan Miller as he came out of his crease to play the puck. This wasn’t deemed a major penalty by the refs, and Lucic never received a suspension. In looking back on the Sabres.com recap of the game, all they had to say about the hit was this: “Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Miller had a bit of a sore neck after being leveled by Milan Lucic when Miller came out of his crease to play the puck and take away Lucic’s breakaway opportunity in the first period.” Little did they know this was going to end up being a lot more than a “sore neck”.
I’m not going to say anything else about the hit, but you probably can guess I wasn’t to happy with it and the leagues lack of response to it. Look at the picture above and if that looks like an unintentional bump, then you and I are not on the same page. Anyways, the normal hockey fan would assume that the team would respond to this hit. They should all skate full speed at Lucic and take care of him. Fights, punches, tackles, anything to repay this dirty hit on your goalie, the guy who has done so much for the team over the years. Nothing happened. I was in awe as I’m sure fans, coaches, teammates on the bench, hell I bet even Lucic was expecting to get roughed up after this. All that happened was a few Sabres skated to him and pushed him up against the boards gently. A group formed, but no fights, no punches thrown, nothing. Sure, Gaustad fought him the next time the teams matched up eleven days later, but at that point it just seemed forced.
Since that game the Sabres have not looked or played like the team they were before that game. Miller had a concussion and missed several games, and since he has returned he has not looked like his former self. This is a goalie who won the Vezina trophy two seasons ago and won the MVP award at the Vancouver Olympics. This type of drop off doesn’t just happen overnight. Whether it is something physical that is still hindering him post-concussion or something mental going on, Miller is not the same. This has been a huge problem, but there is more at hand here.
Everyone reading this who knows about the Sabres is probably saying to themselves that the main problem the Sabres have had is injuries. Yes, that is an undeniable fact. Injuries have been rampant within this team, but that is no excuse. The fact that we have had games this year in which we had 9 (yes, 9) rookies in the starting line up is a testament to just how bad the injuries have been, but I am not buying that as an excuse. These are some of our best prospects, they have chemistry together, and they were not the guys who were noticeably playing poorly in games. Guys like McNabb, Adam, Kassian and Brennan have played pretty well considering they are rookies. Of course they have made mistakes, but again, I do not feel like that is why the Sabres are losing games. I know that key players have been missing games and that does hurt. Guys like Myers, Ehrhoff, Roy, and Ennis have missed significant time and that is part of the problem, but every team deals with injuries. Hell, Sidney Crosby has been out practically the entire season and the Penguins are still in the playoff picture, and honestly is their roster top to bottom that much better than ours on paper (without Crosby)? Maybe, but I am not one to blame injuries.
In my opinion, the core of the Sabres problems has come from a total lack of a killer instinct, accountability and heart. That sounds corny and cliche but that is truly what I believe. There are too many guys on this team, getting paid too much money and they are not playing to the ability that they can and should be playing. Guys like Drew Stafford (7 goals, 15 assists), Derek Roy (9 goals, 16 assists), Paul Gaustad (4 goals, 6 assists), Ville Leino (3 goals, 7 assists) and Robyn Regehr (0 goals, 2 assists) simply are not playing with any sort of heart or passion. There have been countless times this season in which a guy like Stafford or Roy has been right on the doorstep with an incredible opportunity, and just wasn’t able to score. Top tier players, and guys who get paid like Stafford and Roy find ways to score those goals. I know it’s a stupid argument with no real proof, but if you watch enough Sabres games you know what I’m talking about.
I am not like all the ignorant people who are calling for Ruff and Regier’s head. Ruff has been a staple of this team for over a decade now and his consistency is something of value. I don’t wanna hear all the nonsense that he can’t motivate players anymore because that’s not the case. The players need to step up, there is only so much a coach can say or do to get points across, and I guarantee that Lindy is doing his best at that. Also, Regier did his job. He brought in guys that were talented, and expected to perform. The fact that they aren’t playing that way is not neccesarily his fault.
A trade might shake things up, but would we really get anything of value for these guys right now? Honestly what could we get in a trade for Stafford? He is an overpaid, underachiever. I think they need to ride this out with the team and coaches they have and players need to perform. They need an edge. They need tenacity. They need a drive and desire to succeed. That may come, that may not, but we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m getting close to chalking this season up as a failure, but I’m not quite there yet. Yes, they have lost 9 straight road games in regulation and things aren’t looking up with five more road games in a row against the Blackhawks, Jets, Blues, Devils and Canadiens. If they can somehow manage to win two (or three) of these, it will be a success, something they can run with for the stretch of games after the all star break. It is going to take something we haven’t seen out of the Sabres in quite some time (dare I say 2006?). It’s going to take heart.