It’s been a few months since I’ve been in the Sabres’ locker room, so I have no idea if that picture of the Stanley Cup still exists. If it does, it surely is a relic from a bygone era. It was put there at the request of Chris Drury, and of course you already know this. I think we also realize that something like this is a relic of that time as well:
Before Drury joined the Sabres — acquired from the Flames — the locker room music stayed on loud and long before games, and no one hit the weight room after. Drury walked in his first day and turned off the stereo. “I thought, What’s wrong with this guy?” says Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell. Late during an exhibition game in 2003, one rookie teammate fired off a sloppy pass that led to a scoring chance for the opponents. They didn’t score. The Sabres led by four goals. Drury still chewed the rookie out, and when the player retorted that it was only preseason, Drury said, “I don’t care. Don’t ever do that again.” He made a point of sidling up to Miller, then a rookie unsure of how to challenge Biron, and said, “You going to take this job or what?”
No one is saying the Sabres need a loudmouth like Sean Avery in the room. But too many quiet players did lessen the Sabres. During a few off-the-record chats, some Sabres said the silence diminished their days.
It was described as this: Imagine walking into a room eager to start your day. You’re excited about getting ready to play in front of 19,000 fans, thrilled to be living in the fantasy world of a professional hockey player. You’re bubbling to chat and get more psyched up, giddy with anticipation about the drop of the puck.
You get to the rink and … nothing. It seems no one is sharing your fun or excitement. You look left and a guy is silently lacing his skates. You look right and the teammate may as well be Charlie Chaplin or Marcel Marceau.
It’s a downer, no doubt about it.
The usual silence was briefly shattered in late December. The team had a terrible, lackluster outing against Washington. Someone spoke up, said some teammates needed to play better. At least one person was annoyed by the constructive criticism.
Everyone had better get thicker skin over the summer. The Sabres insist the verbiage is vital to becoming a better team next season.
I can’t say I’m surprised by any of that. In fact, we’ve known this team is mentally weak all along. Still, when you’re looking back on the last three versions of this team it’s pretty shocking to see how much has changed. How did we go from guys being held accountable in preseason to being completely unable to handle constructive criticism in just two seasons?
Remember when Miller got hurt and and it became painfully obvious that this team had the mental instability to match their timid play? That question asked by Jerry Sullivan sparked a ton of debate between fans and media alike about just how soft is this team.
The response from the team is what surprised me the most. Ruff got mad about it and refused to address the issue. In fact everyone on the team seemed angry, but the wrong kind of angry. They weren’t upset because they needed to prove something, they were just upset that they were called out by someone at all. It was unnerving to say the least to watch a team get rattled by its own fans, let alone by a few graphs in the local paper.
Now Buffalo is not exactly known for its rabid media presence, but we do make a big deal out of our sports teams. Still, I thought it was pretty unbelievable that the team took these complaints so seriously. If anything it showed that not only was there a big problem, but it was about a whole lot more than just protecting your goaltender.
For years we’ve seen defenseman crumble under the pressure put on them by Lindy Ruff, and a superstar in Brian Campbell losing his cool under trade talks. At what point is it more than individual players and more a product of the team as a whole? Is it a flaw in player and team philosophy, or just a few soft eggs influencing the rest of them?
I think it’s pretty clear what has happened to this team: the players that were leaders have left through various means, and no one has felt comfortable stepping up in their place. Considering that most people really thought Jason Pominville would be the team’s captain at this time last season, I think that says enough about the leadership available on the team.
Last summer Darcy Regier went out and got Craig Rivet, who immediately was given the C to open training camp. Again it shows you just how desperate this team was for leadership, but just how vocal can the new guy be? The only person who’s been on the team long enough and who has shown the ability to speak up is Paul Gaustad, and his coach refuses to give him the letter to justify it.
In fact, Gaustad seems to be a relic of the past as well. His work ethic comes directly from his time with Chris Drury, and I think it clearly shows in his game. This was the rookie that tried beating Drury to the rink, and his game has benefited from the way he has practiced since. Most people I’ve talked to feel it is only a matter of time before Gaustad gets a letter and becomes a true leader on this team, but that’s not going to be enough for this team.
We spend a lot of time looking back at what we had two years ago, but what will fix the problems on this team is getting something new. This isn’t about getting a guy like Drury back, but getting new players that can create a new majority in the locker room. It’s not going to come from the guys we have right now, and two guys like Rivet and Gaustad can’t do it themselves.
If the team can’t grow up on their own, certain players should be given the opportunity to grow up on someone else’s time. This time around, silence isn’t an option.