Fire and Ice

I found an article someone wrote on Sunday, when the Sabres beat the Penguins 6-2. The FJM model of internet snark may have run its course, but I thought this one might be fun. Here we go.

Bottoming out can yield results

Go on…

The 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres are broken. Interchangeable parts for a machine that was designed poorly and never really worked anyway. The team photo should just be a question mark made of widgets and washers.

Already with the mixed metaphors? I bet he had that written before he even stepped into the rink that day. Such a typical journalist, forcing square pegs into hacky, circular holes.

With 23 games left in the regular season the goal for this team must shift from making the playoffs to fixing what has become a disaster of a hockey team. Owner Terry Pegula has put faith in GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff to man the helm of what has become a fast-sinking ship. The leadership is unlikely to change.

That sad conclusion could be its own diatribe. I should have just cut him off after every word so you’d lose patience and close the browser tab.

Also, we have now talked about machines and ships. I hope he gets to dirigibles next.

New players will most certainly come, be it in the trade market or in free agency. What could most impact the team, however, may come from where Regier has long-yielded the best results: the NHL Entry Draft.

Marek Zagrapan.

Regier is famous for digging deep and finding diamonds in the late-round muck. Ryan Miller, fifth-round pick in 1999 (138th overall), is atop that list. The Sabres GM has never really had the chance to draft near the top of the heap, but he certainly looks headed towards that distinction this season.

Because, say it with me, he built a bad hockey team. Didn’t he?

Buffalo has not drafted in the top four since 1987, when Gary Meehan took Pierre Turgeon (515 career goals) first overall. Since then, the closest the Sabres got was Thomas Vanek — fifth overall in 2003. That’s a lot of years in the middle and a lot of great players going to bad teams.

I don’t think he meant to root for bad hockey teams, but that’s basically what he did. Those poor, competitive Sabres teams drafting low and making the playoffs. Misguided fools.

The Sabres, as bad a team money can buy, are finally ready to be rewarded for a miserable season.

The baddest baddies ever are seven points out with 22 games to play. The only thing they look ready for is another two months of mediocrity. They’re 5-3-2 over the last 10 games and have won two straight. They look pretty okay right now, not ‘Good God, the helium just caught fire!’

Damn, now I’m using zeppelin metaphors.

The good news is that over the last decade, it’s tough to find a true bust atop the NHL draft board. This summer’s picks may not best the 2003 Draft, widely regarded as the best in league history, but a top pick is always a premium. Ovechkin, Crosby, Kane, Stamkos and Tavares; all first overall picks that made an immediate impact on their pitiful franchises.

It is important to note that no matter how badly the Sabres play over the next 22 games, they will not get the first pick. Columbus, the team that traded for and jettisoned Jeff Carter in the span of eight months, has all but locked up that distinction by being a truly pathetic organization in every respect. I’m actually afraid of what may happen to whoever gets taken first overall this summer.

Since their selections, two teams — Pittsburgh and Chicago — have gone on to win Stanley Cups.

The Sabres are nothing like the Penguins and Blackhawks. It feels like Pittsburgh has never actually been mediocre. Like, ever. Either real penguins die right on the ice before puck drop or they’re winning Stanley Cups with the best player in the league. There’s really no in-between.

Chicago, meanwhile, needed to be bad for a decade and have its owner drop dead to turn things around. Encouraging.

The Penguins, Buffalo’s opponent in a 6-2 matinee win at First Niagara Center on Sunday, are a perfect example of a team reaping the rewards of bottoming out.

By being absolutely putrid for four seasons and getting a lottery pick after the lockout. Also encouraging.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, first overall in 2003, was dazzling in relief; taking over after backup Brent Johnson allowed three goals on 11 shots. The 27-year-old netminder gave up three more goals on the afternoon but it could have been much worse.

Forward Evgeni Malkin (second overall, 2004) was the most dangerous Penguin on the ice, a slick cross-ice pass setting up Pittsburgh’s first goal. Malkin was a stunning combination of speed and strength on Sunday, a rare day where he lacked the finish that’s made him a perennial All-Star.

A quick backhand in the slot by Jordan Staal (second overall, 2003) on the power play made it 3-2 Sabres early in the third before Buffalo finally pulled away.

Keep in mind, the Penguins did lose this game to that team currently engulfed in flames. Call it a small sample size.

Despite the loss, Pittsburgh is headed for its sixth straight playoff appearance and is making all this noise without its most prized pick, Sidney Crosby (first overall, 2005). Sure, the decade or so of losing that proceeded this stretch was difficult. The team went through bankruptcy and nearly moved to Canada or — even worse — Kansas City.

New ownership, a championship and a new arena soon followed and the Penguins are back with a cast of stars for a new generation. The Sabres’ ‘stars,’ meanwhile, are fading, flickering or never really shined at all.

I guess he skipped airships and went right into space! Wheeeeeeeeeee…

Change is on the horizon in Buffalo.

What a downer, man.

That change will unfold over the next few weeks and months, but the most important piece to that rebuilding effort may be the first-round selection they make this summer. Top picks become cornerstones for a franchise ready to put the pieces back together again.

The Penguins have shown there can be a payoff for failure in hockey. If, of course, you trust the guy who gets to make the pick.

Um, okay.

That was written four days ago. Since then, Buffalo has won another game and leaped teams in the standings. They are playing pretty well defensively and Ryan Miller looks like an altogether different hockey player over the last fortnight or so. There is hope and it indeed does lie in the proles.

I haven’t told you who wrote the bold text. Well, I did. I went into Sunday’s game expecting Buffalo to lose and ready to write an easy column about a losing season for the Niagara Gazette. Then they looked surprisingly effective against the Penguins. I wrote it anyway. On Tuesday, Buffalo took care of the Islanders and we started to look up the ladder once again.

I’ve struggled to effectively chronicle the irratic nature of the Buffalo Sabres this season. Maybe the above can help explain things a bit. On any given night it really is difficult to know what to expect from this team. At some point, I’d imagine, you have to pick a side and root for something. Winning or losing, for better or worse.

I still haven’t. I’d love to cut ties and say this team is toast. My ‘professional’ writing voice has already picked a stance, mostly because it’s easier to be a chilly bastard up there in the ivory tower that is a cold press box. The truth is, however, I will have no idea what to think if Buffalo throws another win or two on the pile after this weekend. The Rangers and Bruins are good teams, good in a way the Sabres cannot dream of this year.

Strong showings against the two certainly won’t change that. In fact, it may hurt the cause in the long run if you want to consider all that draft pick talk. The Sabres are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs, but I haven’t brought myself to root against a team slowly finding working parts again.

We are mere days from the trade deadline and I don’t know what to make of this hockey team. This seems problematic. Then again, I’m not in charge. Hopefully the powers that be know what to make of this team and what needs some working on. That’s what this deadline is for, anyway.

What I do know is that this weekend should prove interesting, and hopefully, decisive. Sometime Saturday night I expect to have some direction with this team.

Perhaps you feel the same.

One Comment

  1. Mike

    Here’s where I am with this team.
    I think I’ll actually be more hopeless if the team somehow pulls off the Miracle run to 8th…or 10th. In the past we fans have always taken solace in the fact that Darcy couldn’t spend top dollar to get free agents. Well, now we can, and we’re still in the same “good but not good enough” status. We have the Peter Gibbons of NHL franchises. It would appear that they’re pretty good at hockey, but as he told the Bobs in Office Space “it’s a matter of motivation.” It would appear that this teams only motivation is in their contract year or to try just hard enough not to be harrassed at Wegmans. Maybe Terry Pegula can work out some sort of profit sharing deal based on wins but it might be against the CBA.