Sully on the Sabres

By Chris

News Columnist Jerry Sullivan has been on fire recently, and it’s rare that I agree with him. But with recent columns on UB Football putting pressure on UB Basketball and yesterday’s piece on why the Bills need to fire Dick Jauron, it’s tough to find instances lately where he’s really wrong.

And after all that’s happened with the Sabres in the last two years, his column from last Thursday is pretty much dead on.

It’s something I’ve been trying to make the time to analyze, so let’s take a look at it now, Robistrator style.

This was clearly a very big day for the Buffalo Sabres. Eager fans lined up outside HSBC Arena before 10 a. m. Wednesday, waiting for the privilege of buying one of the new third jerseys at up to $295 a pop.

Bring out a new line of clothing and watch the people reach for their wallets. Sometimes I think it’s more about the jerseys than the team itself.

Hitting the nail on the head, it’s evident with the influx of new jerseys (the home and away slug, the Winter Classic jersey and now the new third) and that ridiculous SabreStyle crap (or whatever it’s called), they could put a picture of a third-world orphan on a T-Shirt, slap the word “Sabres” on it and it will probably sell out of the Sabres Store faster than you can say “Nathan Gerbe.”

Who cares if Max Afinogenov is spinning around the ice with no apparent purpose, so long as the turnstiles and cash registers are whirring and the kids are content?

Max has been frustrating to say the least. But the kids love Max. Gotta play to your audience, right?

The way people respond to the Sabres, you’d think they had actually won something.

This is true. Almost 40 years in existence and no championship to show for it.

In that way, they’re a lot like the Bills. You have to admit, our two professional teams do a marvelous job of selling average teams to the public.

Although both have also struggled as recently as four years ago. A blacked out Bills game was a common theme a few seasons ago and I remember being in a half-empty HSBC Arena watching the Ducks come to town on a Wednesday night.

The teams have had some entertaining seasons lately and, at least in the case of the Bills, every offseason gives fans a reason to get excited again. Bringing in guys like Marcus Stroud, Kawicka Mitchell and James Hardy got fans pumped for the 2008 season and, looking back at August, it’s tough to blame anyone for it. While the “splash” signing and draft picks may turn out to be somewhere between mediocre and bust, having Monday night games helps fill the stadium as well.

In the Sabres case, after the 2005-06 season, it became so hard to get tickets that many fans, myself included, hang onto my mini-pack just to guarantee that I’ll be able to go to a few games (as well as the playoffs, knock on wood).

People act as if the Sabres are a sleeping giant, waiting to rediscover the magic of two years ago. How long must we wait? Going back to the start of last season, the Sabres are 49-54, including overtime and shootout losses.

Staggering numbers and the million dollar question: How long must we wait? Sully thinks we’ve waited long enough. Maybe we have.

So why all the fuss? Locking up players to long-term deals doesn’t make them stars. A big contract doesn’t make Jason Pominville an all-star. It doesn’t make Ryan Miller an elite goalie.

After more than 100 games, it stops being a slump. It’s a trend. They beat Boston on Wednesday, 3-2, but until proven otherwise, they’re average, without a consistent winning edge.

Pominville has never been an all-star. Miller might be an elite goalie. But we’ve locked these guys up for the long haul in fear of losing them to bigger markets. I would say that, individually, Pominville and Miller and much better than average. To say that the current team, however, the one we’ve watched since last October, with all of its flaws, is average is perhaps actually an understatement.

The core of this team rode Danny Briere/ Chris Drury to two Eastern finals. The Sabres lost their winning edge when those two left. They’ll stop hearing about it when they build their own legacy.

Who are those guys again?

Listening to the players at the morning skate, it sounded like last year all over again. Pominville said they needed to play with desperation and stay within the system. Toni Lydman talked about keeping it simple, going to the net and getting ugly goals. Same old stuff. They should just play a recorded message.

“It is a lot about the same,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “We should have won some games that we didn’t. But we’ve got to turn the corner quicker.”

A lot of this reminds me of Ryan’s post a few weeks ago about “The System:”

With all that said, let’s not talk about “The System” anymore. It obviously has no flaws, and if the players can’t live up to “The System”, we just need to find new players. Preferably robots who can focus on the multitude of rules and advice it offers for a full sixty minutes. Instead of talking about “The System” let’s talk about another fun buzz word we throw around often: defensive responsibility.

Back to Sully…

On Thanksgiving Eve, the Sabres played with passion and verve befitting the occasion. But it’s no shock to see them play an inspired game. They’re a frontrunning group with maddening streaks of good and bad play. They want it to be easy. Never has a team gotten so full of itself with so little justification.

That right there is the essence of the Buffalo Sabres post-lockout. They play like they’re on their high horse all the time when in fact they’ve had one great playoff run and one great regular season in the last three-and-a-half years. They do want it to be easy. Being able to rally from three goal deficits four years ago will give you that confidence. They know that they’re talented enough to win games without putting in a full effort. However, it hasn’t happened lately.

As Herb Brooks once said, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Management falls in love with its own flawed players. You’d think they were an elite team with a solid, veteran roster no kid can crack. Around the NHL, teams are playing kids and getting away with it. Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic in Boston, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal in Pittsburgh, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago — all 21 or younger and thriving in the league.

Falling in love with players is a strong phrase here. Management knows that the game is a business and bad assets are going to be costly to your success.

Of all the players Sullivan named there, all were top 5 draft picks with the exception of Lucic. Since 1996, the Sabres have picked in the top 10 only twice.

They struck out in 1996 when the took Erik Rasmussen seventh overall but they seem to have hit a home run by taking Thomas Vanek fifth in 2003 (although it’s tough to go wrong with almost any first round pick that year). Teams like Chicago and Pittsburgh now have those super-star young guns because they suffered through some awful seasons in order to select that high in the draft year after year.

It actually is a positive that the Sabres haven’t had to rely on top picks to step in right away. Who wants to be the LA Kings?

Meanwhile, the Sabres keep their top kids down in Portland. Tim Kennedy is 22, Nathan Gerbe and Mike Weber 21, but we’re supposed to believe they need more experience riding the AHL buses. The Sabres have no one among the top 30 NHL rookies in scoring. Of course, until they brought up Mark Mancari, they didn’t have any rookies.

The Sabres have had success in keeping the young kids down. Paille and MacArthur could still be serious projects if they had been rushed up. Mancari took four years to develop into what looks like a decent checking winger with a little scoring touch (who hopefully can continue to improve).

While I’d love to see Kennedy and Gerbe up here to spark out lifeless team, it probably is best for them to stay where they are right now. Unless Regier makes some serious moves, there just isn’t room for these players in the lineup. What good is bringing Gerbe up if he’s limited to six minutes a game on the fourth line, where his small frame won’t do much good in the hitting department?

If the Sabres are going to make the decision to go with the new recruits, then they need to feature these players on scoring lines. But that’s not their style so until things change up top, we’re going to see more of the same on the ice.

The Sabres won’t admit it, but they’re in transition. The hope is in Portland, and the sooner they bring up the kids, the better. What do they have to lose, except more games? Let the kids learn in the NHL, like all those other promising young players around the league.

The development is the big issue again. Forcing raw talents like Gerbe and Kennedy to go against seasoned players they’re not yet ready to match up against could stunt their growth.

The Sabres are banking on them developing quickly though. With Connolly, Afinogenov, Kotalik, Spacek and Numminen all due for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season, it’s a safe bet you’re going to see Kennedy, Gerbe, Mancari, Weber and Butler fill those spots. Don’t expect any free agent splashes as the Sabres already have nearly $30 million tied up in salaries for next season. The young kids are going to have their time, it’s probably going to be later rather than sooner (barring any inevitable injuries).

It’s a joke that Afinogenov is on this team. He’s been here since 1999, and he’s still making the same mistakes.

Afinogenov should have been gone long ago. He and Tim Connolly are symptomatic of the Sabres’ tendency to hang on to soft, finesse players who hold a franchise back. They need to move on and prepare for life with the young players. They’re the future.

What other soft, finesse players have the Sabres hung onto that have held the franchise back? Sure there was Satan but he was 35 goal scorer who helped lead the team to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Pat LaFontaine, maybe? Because his number isn’t in the rafters for decoration. Does he mean Milan Bartovic?

If anything, it’s not Max and Connolly being on the team that’s the problem. Neither are on the ice now anyways. Instead it’s the stupid salaries they were signed to. The Connolly contract is one that still boggles my mind, considering he was probably in a coma when he signed it.

Just imagine the jersey sales.

Like the Sabres need to sell any more jerseys. Quinn and company are racking in a boatload. But bringing up the Gerbes and the Kennedys may not only bring in marketing revenue but maybe something close to a championship as well. I don’t see it happening for a while, but just imagine…


  1. Future President

    The Sabres are entertainment. Sure you can say civic pride, but really does anything change if they win a Stanley Cup? Not really

    And you could take out the Sabres and insert Buffalo News and it would be the same. People keep reading that and its uninspired writing.


    Good read!

    I am not usually a Sully supporter but I agree his articles the past couple of weeks have been dead on.

    The Sabres are soft. We need to inject some spark back into the lineup…Lindy is a great coach but it’s falling on deaf ears at this point.

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  1. By Warning Sign March 18, 2009 at 4:33 AM