We were all wrong about the Buffalo Sabres.
That’s the easiest way to begin. They’re not a team of chokers or quitters or underachievers. They are not lazy or trying too hard or unable to perform under pressure. They’re just not any good. Plenty of teams fail to make the grade each year. The Sabres just got their marks a bit earlier than others.
Given the circumstances of this season, a lot of fans have struggled with this reality. We’ve all had our moments.
@jason_griswold I don’t think ninth place or worse is an option for this team. City would burn.
— Ryan Nagelhout (@goosesroost) December 8, 2011
Four months later, the Sabres clean out their lockers and the city still stands. Sorry, everyone.
The excuses are there to make this okay, if you want to look.
There are the injuries. The Sabres lost 329 man games to injury this year, a stat that doesn’t officially exist but attaches a large-looking number to the feeling that the Sabres could have used a bit more of the Tylers this year.
There are the missteps made in the early days, the first transactions of the Pegula Era. The former 40 goal-scorer rendered useless in a different shade of blue and gold. The positional problems Ville Leino presented by accepting a suitcase full of cash for faceoffs he had no intention to take.
There is the pressure to succeed, that line Tobey Maguire stole from Voltare. Maybe that fancy locker room was referenced one too many times by the media and fans as a sign the team was getting everything it needed to succeed. Perhaps an expectant home crowd put too much pressure on a mediocre hockey team to be great.
The last few paragraphs were an exercise in torture, because I hate the excuses. Hate hate hate them. The first 14 months of the Pegula Era have been an abysmal failure. Let’s call it what it is and move on.
For months Sabres fans have struggled with this team’s identity. Poured over the same information again and again, searching for something to grab hold of. A statistical oddity to fall for. There was nothing there to love and really embrace. That’s why the building was quiet and the snark ran high.
Thomas Vanek all but disappeared. His essence, a light Austrian mist, was there from time to time but it was not enough. Apparently he has no idea what happened, which is encouraging.
Jason Pominville was fine. Great, good for him. Uninspiring as he is, his statistics will stand out on a team that couldn’t score and — as a result — couldn’t get points for large portions of the season. I want to feel something significant from No. 29, but I only come away with inefficiencies. He deserves a shadow to stand in.
Derek Roy had an all-around awful year. Injury hangover clearly impacted his abilities and, as we have seen with other athletes, it’s easy to rush a comeback with that injury and not be the same. This should not be forgotten, but it already has been lost in the ether. Add in the frustrations fans already had with the center and it was not a good situation from the start. He’s not helping any by opening his mouth after the fact, either.
The bright spots were few. Paul Gaustad’s market value (Transactions!), Marcus Foligno’s productive arrival (Transactions!) and selling Kassian for something of value (Transactions!) all rank high on the list. Relief that Christian Ehrhoff may be worth the money he’s making. It’s an incredibly sad list, all submitted via fax to the league offices in New York.
Moving the report card off the ice is more troubling. You could argue that this was one of Darcy Regier’s better seasons in the general manager’s office. You could also easily argue against that but, despite the mistakes with Boyes and Leino, he did do well with other acquisitions. Ehrhoff was the team’s best defenseman at times and Regehr changed the complexion on the back end. Which is to say, he could actually hit someone.
Cody Hodgson showed promise and even Alexander Sulzer played well as an add-on in the deadline deal with Vancouver. It’s likely the Sabres will go down as the ‘winner’ of that trade in the end.
You could also argue that this was one of Lindy Ruff’s worst coaching jobs. He lost the team at times. Months at a time. It’s a minor miracle the Sabres’ didn’t turn on one another during the 12-game road losing skid where Ruff told a beat writer to coach the team. Thanks for flying on Good Times Airlines, guys.
Roy’s comments imply something many have sensed for some time now: It’s not working like it used to. Ruff’s a fan-favorite and he has more clout than Roy at this point, but the equation just didn’t add up this year. Considering all the things they had going for them in October, that’s telling.
Both of these arguments are pointless, though, and that’s perhaps the most frustrating part of all this. Ruff and Regier are not going anywhere. There are no ultimatums. No ‘get better or else’ statements. Just an endless vote of confidence and a secret contract we’re not supposed to wonder about.
The Sabres are no longer victims of an economic handicap but they are still saddled by relics of the past, both in players and management. Maybe they can win with Ruff and Regier if they tinker with enough of the roster, but I still wonder what we’re holding on to. These guys that have never won anything keep holding form, and we keep expecting something different in return for our faith in them.
Much of the last month has felt similar to the last few years of Sabres hockey. The post-2007 Sabres have a gross kind of consistency in this regard. The desperate grasping at playoff hopes. Ryan Miller trapped on the ice while the team struggles to score in front of him. Sub-par defense and injuries ‘dooming’ a team never once bound for success.
This year, though, is worse. It shouldn’t be like this anymore. A self-imposed salary cap is gone, as is the need to overvalue players because of the terrifying thought they may succeed elsewhere. Buffalo can now wheel and deal. It will, but with the same people operating the odd, cliched transaction vehicle I wonder what good it will do.
There will be no tears for this Sabres team. They don’t deserve them. Turn the page, burn the evidence and move on. The videos are nice and the intention is good, but it didn’t work. Change it up and let’s try again next year.
Right now I’m not optimistic, but I’m more than willing to be wrong again.