From the Top Down

“Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup.”

It hasn’t quite been a year since Sabres owner Terrence M. Pegula uttered those powerful words. It hasn’t quite been a year since that same confidence was able to revitalize a cynical fanbase, and motivate an underperforming team to go 16-4-4 over the course of its final 24 games and climb into a playoff spot.

Less than a year has passed since then, and today there’s a new quote that people know Terry Pegula for.

“I think we’ll get Humpty back together here by the All-Star break and we’ll have our Buffalo Sabres back the way they were designed to be at the beginning of the season.”

In 2011, Terry Pegula showcased unflinching determination, and the product on the ice mirrored that same determination. In 2012, he’s showcased softness, and the product on the ice has displayed exactly that.

When have we ever seen the owners of successful NHL franchises such as the Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks, or Anaheim Ducks blame their teams’ shortcomings on injuries?

When have the co-owners of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, ever complained about the injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal or Kris Letang over the last two seasons?

Sabres president Ted Black has regularly asked for patience from the fans regarding the team’s troubles this year, but fans have every right to feel bitter about management’s apathy towards the struggling team.

Pegula doesn’t need to take after the late Al Davis (former owner of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders) with a hard-boiled approach to overseeing his sports franchise, but coddling the players and coaches will never inspire them to strive for more.

Such an attitude resonates throughout an organization. General manager Darcy Regier, a routine target for the fans’ criticism, apparently has no greater resolve in his role than he has since joining the Sabres in 1997.

Although he cannot be expected to somehow hustle other NHL franchises into trades for the variety of underachieving players on the Sabres roster, multiple reports from the media which suggest that he has been very stubborn in negotiations with other GMs is unsettling. One story which implied that he’s even ignoring phone calls altogether is especially depressing.

The media has revealed headshaking behavior from another key figure in the franchise, one a lot more beloved than Regier- head coach Lindy Ruff.

During the January 18th game in Chicago, Ville Leino attempted a behind-the-back pass that was intercepted by Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, and eventually led to a Chicago goal.

The baffling play by Leino was criticized by the broadcast teams on MSG and the NBC Sports Network, but Ruff appeared to defend Leino when he participated in a quick interview with analyst Pierre Mcguire on the bench.

He essentially confirmed it later that night in his press briefings.

“It’s a bad play, there’s no doubt. It’s a terrible play … but my thought was we had guys in the right position,” Ruff explained.

Ruff also told the media, who expressed subtle challenges for him to be tougher on the mistake-prone players, that he wouldn’t let emotions and frustration run high.

Just a couple of days later, he could be seen berating Derek Roy on the bench after Roy failed to block a shot in the shooting lane against the Winnipeg Jets.

Either Ruff put on a façade about what he believes is the proper way to inflame players, or he’s conflicted about which method to follow. Neither circumstance is very uplifting for a coach who is being questioned by more and more people for his ability to lead a successful NHL squad.

For yet another year, the Sabres’ special teams are middling at best. They continue to be a woefully undisciplined team (if there’s a record for delay of game penalties by one team in one season, Buffalo may secure it this year).

Goaltender Ryan Miller has played in a number of consecutive games on back-to-back nights where backup Jhonas Enroth would arguably have been a fresher, more capable choice.

On the subject of goaltending gaffes, there’s that whole other monster which was the humiliating 8-3 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 17th. After giving up four goals in the first period, Miller was pulled from the game, but was inexplicably put back in net to start the second period.

The Sabres as a whole played no better from there-on than they did in the opening 20 minutes, and Miller was eventually pulled once again after allowing a goal in the first minute of the second period.

No matter how much emphasis the organization continues to put on creating a tougher, grittier hockey club, the roster remains soft year-in and year-out. When Thomas Vanek was taken out on a dirty slash during the playoffs against the Boston Bruins nearly two years ago, the team recoiled.

When Jason Pominville received a concussion on a brutal boarding check by Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson, the team recoiled. When Miller was bulldozed by Boston’s Milan Lucic just a few short months ago, the team recoiled.

The faces on this team have changed plenty of times over the years. No matter how many Craig Rivets, Mike Griers, Cody McCormicks, Robyn Regehrs, Patrick Kaletas or Zack Kassians are brought in, the team never shows toughness when it counts.

That’s a motivation issue if there ever was one.

But that certainly does not excuse all of the Sabres’ numerous and embarrassing shortcomings on the ice. It doesn’t excuse forwards like Roy, Drew Stafford or Brad Boyes from being next to ineffective in scoring, which has no doubt contributed to Buffalo’s 25th-ranked offense.

It doesn’t excuse the roster for having 24 different players who sport a minus-rating on this season thus far, or for a defense core which turns over the puck as though it has the plague. It doesn’t excuse Miller from having miserable stats at the present (.889 save percentage, 3.07 GAA), or Enroth from not attaining a win in his last six starts.

“It’s not good hockey,” said an emotional Miller said after the 5-0 loss to the Red Wings on January 16th, “It’s not good from the top down.”

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