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How Did We Get Here?

The Buffalo Sabres are a mess. It is what every fan is thinking, what every pundit is thinking and hopefully what every player is thinking. There are highlights. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville are showing that they are stars in this league.

Some rookies have come in a played well. But at the end of the day we still find ourselves at the point of the season where we are becoming downtrodden and some of us are dreaming of Nail Yakupov instead of the playoffs.

This begs the question: how did we get here? I find myself lowering my expectations in each and every game. I am actually finding Yakupov within reach. I desperately want someone fired.

I went to a game live and didn’t even expect the team to win, I was just hoping for a goal. Buffalo was embarrassed in back-to-back games at a point in the season where they were supposed to turn it around. How did we get here?

There are a lot of theories floating around. The most often used by the Sabres themselves is injuries. “How can we be expected to compete with half our lineup out?” “We’re missing key players!” Boo-fricken-hoo. If you look at any team in the NHL can you tell me that they aren’t missing some key piece. Sidney Crosby and Mikko Koivu are out. While the Wild have faltered, Pittsburgh has thrived. Even in Chicago they are missing Patrick Sharp, but that didn’t stop the team from stomping all over the Sabres on national television.

Yes there have been injuries, but your two star forwards have managed to stay relatively healthy. The rookies who have been called up have played well. It isn’t an excuse. What happens when you make it to the big, bad playoffs and someone goes down. You don’t win the Stanley Cup and it there’s nothing you can do about it. It isn’t about a failing of depth. It is the bread and butter players that aren’t coming through time and time again.

The next big idea that the experts like to throw around is the Lucic hit on Ryan Miller. “That’s where it all started”. But let’s be honest, the signs were there if you were looking for them. This team was hardly infallible before that hit and I would argue that in the subsequent games this team actually looked more  like that, a team.

Since then they have suffered catastrophic failures all over the ice and it hasn’t been pretty. I think that is just a convenient event on which people were laying blame. It was a symptom of the problem, but hardly a catalyst to issues themselves.

No, the makeup of this team has proven it doesn’t work. I’m not going to say “This team needs a shakeup”. We all get that, I will assume you were smart enough to come up with that advice on your own. What I want to impart to you as the reader is just what is wrong with this team, as much as I can know as a hockey player and a fan.

I am not blaming Darcy Regier for this mess. The pressure was on him this summer and he did what he could. Sometimes you just miss, even with the best of plans. That’s is what has happened here, but let’s look at what went wrong.

Darcy Regier operated under the assumption that if you go out and get someone who has played center and was a top-6 forward you will have a top-6 center. That is not the case in Lindy Ruff’s system.

I’m not sure where the breakdown in communication came from but Luke Adam, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, Brad Boyes, Jochen Hecht, Ville Leino, Clarke MacArthur, Michael Ryan and  Tim Kennedy have all tried their hand at center in the Buffalo system in recent memory. How is that working out? Hecht is considered a reasonable option at this point. It has gotten really bad when that is the case. Could you imagine saying that two seasons ago?

The other mistake Regier unknowingly made was the assumption that if you assemble enough streaky scorers (especially snipers), they will take turns getting hot and cold and you will have enough players scoring to win games. That has clearly shown itself not to be true recently.

I’ll admit that I thought this had merit when I noticed it taking place a few years ago. It doesn’t. Who is scoring right now? The players that have found consistency. Who isn’t? The remaining streaky scorers. Vanek and Pominville were in this category a few seasons ago, but they have shed this label.

The cold stick syndrome has spread throughout the locker room and now effects Leino, Boyes, Hecht, Drew Stafford, Derek Roy and anyone else who could be considered depth scoring.

This is a team of like-minded players, but they just are not jelling as a unit. Some of this blame could be on Lindy Ruff and his tendency to blow up lines at any sign of trouble. This prevents some chemistry from being formed. I haven’t brought out my pitchfork and torch for Ruff yet, but he is making it really tough on me so far this season.

A Jason Pominville led team has not helped much either. When Rivet was captain there was tons of communication. Now there is a whole lot of leading by example and very little following the leader. This has led to a lack of team chemistry that has really hurt the club. It has become obvious that certain players just are not simpatico and that means trouble in the locker room and on the ice.

This is not a tough team by any means. There are few fighters and even fewer hitters. The defense could take a page out of the Regehr book of defense and really start punishing opposing forwards, while the Sabres’ forwards completely lack the battle and follow through on any forechecking attempts.

You constantly hear the term battle tossed around in hockey. What that means is players compete for the puck in he corner like their lives depend on it. They will snap you stick, your arm or your spine if it means that they will get the puck and you won’t.

It may not be obvious, but every good player does it. (Even players you wouldn’t expect, see: Dany Heatley) The Sabres haven’t been doing that enough. Nathan Gerbe and Matt Ellis always have the battle. At times you will see Ville Leino or Brad Boyes do it. Marc-Andre Gragnani and Drew Stafford almost never have it and they have been two of the most worrisome players on the team.

Many point to Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth as reasons for Buffalo’s shortcomings, but can you honestly tell me that they are any worse than the pairing Buffalo had in 2008-09 when they came up just a few points shy of the playoffs riding Mikael Tellqvist and Patrick Lalime when Miller was injured? No the problems here are far worse.

Ryan Miller is a salvageable goaltender. In 2006-07 the Sabres rode him to the Eastern Conference Finals, Miller only had a .911 save percentage that season. The difference was that team could fill the net. This team cannot.

I won’t blame the defense too much either. With the rise of Brayden McNabb, if he can keep it up when he returns from injury, Buffalo has a fairly solid top six of Myers, Regehr, Ehrhoff, Sekera, Leopold and McNabb. Mike Weber has been brutal, especially lately and Marc-Andre Gragnani clearly needs to spend this season in a 7th defenseman role.

The major problem is that the have been utilized far too much in poor situations. It is a matter of these two players underachieving and the rest of the defensive unit not rising up to make up for their play. This is the unit in least need of a makeover for next season.

The forwards a jumble. In the preseason we thought they looked good on paper. Two 40 goal scorers, 2 30 goal scorers, 4 20 (and 1 19) goal scores. We were sitting pretty. That wasn’t count Nathan Gerbe and Luke Adam, who we were all sure were guaranteed 20 goal seasons at least.

Now we see that these players simply are not playing up to those standards. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek have the potential to see 30 goal seasons. Anyone else is a long shot. Most of them are long shots for 20 goals. Even players who weren’t counted on for much haven’t produced anything (Paul Gaustad for instance). It has been maddening.

Players are being force out of their element. Paul Gaustad is being paid like a 3rd line center, but he is a 4th liner through and through. Brad Boyes is not a center but is constantly being forced into the middle and Jochen Hecht is having the same issue.  Luke Adam could use some time in Rochester to build his confidence, not this year.

It is a situation where everything is caving in and there is no right move to make right now. I could see Regier making a few small moves, but Derek Roy and Drew Stafford are not going to net a lot in return right now.

Darcy Regier is unlikely to trade the following players: Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Andrej Sekera, Robyn Regehr, Ville Leino, Cody McCormick, Ryan Miller, Jhonas Enroth, Christian Ehrhoff. Who is there left to trade then?

Mike Weber, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Brad Boyes, Jordan Leopold, Paul Gaustad, Patrick Kaleta. These guys aren’t going to get you Bobby Ryan or Ryan Getzlaf in return.

There is good news though. Those guys could net you reliable depth players (which this team desperately needs) and possibly some draft picks. Furthermore the Sabres have an owner willing to spend and longterm contracts on all of the key pieces. If Regier can unload some dead weight you could be looking at a lot of cap space by the season’s end. This and the recent trend of teams turning around quickly when they have high payrolls like Philadelphia and Chicago could mean good things for the Sabres.

I haven’t given up completely on this season but my expectations are not high. I would gladly watch them lose most of the remainder of their games if they unload the players that are currently giving fans fits and bring in some entertaining talent. Especially if that means nabbing Yakupov in the draft. Buffalo will be good again soon, one way or the other. I can’t wait for that day.

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