Last season, Robin Lehner was named the Sabres’ #1 netminder before he had even played a game for the Blue & Gold. Lehner, who had sustained a serious concussion during the previous season, dressed for the season opener despite being woefully out of shape and nearly forty pounds heavier than his usual playing weight. Is it any wonder that he was injured before he had even played full a period? Once rushed back into the line-up later in the season, he clearly wasn’t 100%. Lehner went on to miss the last 11 games of the season and then had off-season surgery.
This terrible saga was a harbinger of things to come.
In the season opener, Evander Kane broke ribs in an awkward crash and fall. Kane was supposed to take at least six weeks to heal. Instead, he returned less than four weeks later.
“I think we all would have liked Evander to have six weeks off and fully recover and fully heal,” Bylsma said. “Evander wanted to come back after two weeks. There was some compromise there.” Coach Bylsma has no doubt that Kane’s play has been limited. If he couldn’t tell from a look in the training room, he could see on the stats sheet; 0 goals, 2 assists, -6 with 10 penalty minutes in 10 games.
This year, de facto Captain Ryan O’Reilly missed a handful of games due to an oblique injury. He played one game before re-aggravating it. In the two games he has played since his second return, he has clearly been playing both with residual pain and shortness of breath in the middle of his shifts. When healthy, O’Reilly is one of the best back-checkers in the league. But, in the Washington game, O’Reilly’s man scored the second goal for the Caps, because he couldn’t maintain a backcheck.
Once (with Lehner) was a mistake. Twice (Kane) was, perhaps, a coincidence. Three times (O’Reilly) is a pattern that cannot be ignored.
These decisions rest squarely in the coach’s hands. Players always want to play. They cannot be blamed for wanting to return to the ice as fast as they can. They are Monty Python’s Black Knight claiming that however serious their injuries, ‘it’s but a flesh wound”. It’s up to the coach to decide who gets to play and how much. It is not a democracy; the coach is in charge. In these three instances, not only were Bylsma’s decisions costly, they were negligent, to the players, the team, and the fans.
The Buffalo faithful have good reason to be wary of an early Jack Eichel return. The Sabres need their young superstar desperately. The final playoff spot is drifting out to sea, almost beyond swimming distance. And the team is dead last in scoring. Like Lehner, Kane and O’Reilly, Jack is chomping at the bit to rejoin his teammates. Can the Sabres and the fans count on the coach to keep Eichel out until he is actually fully recovered? Can the risk of re-injury from a premature return be avoided? Let’s hope Bylsma’s pattern doesn’t continue.
UB graduate Richard Stinziano leads the Sabres Training Department after spending the previous eight years as the Head Trainer for the New Jersey Devils. He has been getting a lot of accolades in the local press. One has to wonder if it is deserved or if Coach Bylsma is not heeding his advice. Perhaps they’re both to blame. Whatever the case, if the Sabres are to have any chance of making a playoff appearance, they cannot afford to have injured players, especially their stars, to come back only to miss more time because their coach let them return too early.