Friday, December 30, 2011

It's No Fun Losing

Yesterday on WGR's Mike Schoppsie and the Bulldog, one of the topics was that the Sabres don't seem to be enjoying themselves right now. It was somewhat spurned by a caller who's young son pointed it out while watching them practice.

Pretty obvious.

The discussion evolved into the fact that this Sabres' team isn't having any fun.

And, they're not.

The simple fact is, it's no fun losing.

No true professional athlete would say they're having fun out there when their team is inconsistent and out of a playoff spot, nor would they utter the words, "we're just gonna go out there and have some fun" as a way of getting out of a funk.

Back in the 90's when the Buffalo Bills were in the midst of their consecutive Super Bowl loss streak, I remember Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly saying that they're gonna go out and just try to have fun as a way of dealing with pressure. That attitude was a harbinger of the disaster that was about to happen.

As the Sabres continue in their funk, not one player should feel as if "going out there and having fun" is the best way to deal with the pressure of losing. They neither have the talent, nor the pedigree nor the rich history to feel so bold as to eschew hard work in favor of fun.

It's worth repeating:  it's no fun losing.

Who is having the best season for the Sabres thus far? It would be Thomas Vanek.

Does he look like he's having fun out there? No.

For him it's all business. It's all hard work. It's paying the price to score a goal.

Vanek never has been the most graceful one on the ice, and he's floundered and tripped over himself as he stretches for something that's just out of reach, but it doesn't matter. He is doing whatever's necessary to get the job done. It's a fourth-line mentality in a top-line player.

Vanek has busted through every threshold that's stood before him since he signed that $50M contract. As he's matured, so has his play. He's still hard on himself for missing an opportunity, but his overall game has developed immensely over the last four years.

He matured to the point where last season he was given a letter and helped lead the team to the playoffs after a dismal start. This season he was clearly disappointed when he didn't get the "C" sewn on his sweater, and what did he do? Stepped up his game. He is on a pace for his third 40-goal season. He's on a pace for career highs in assists and points as well.

The headline for today's Buffalo News article is, Following Vanek's example may cure Sabres' scoring woes.

Maybe it should read like this, "Following Vanek's example may cure the Sabres' immaturity, ineptitude and inconsistency woes."

The Sabres "scoring woes" are a direct result of not putting in the hard work on the ice, of not going to the places where goals are scored, of trying to look to cute and of a general apathetic approach to stretches within the game.

Sabres' players can hide behind the "just gonna go out there and have fun" front, but are they really? Are they really enjoying it, or are they just looking good for the camera?

Are they interested in the Stanley Cup? or the red solo cup?

Big thanx to Cabin for turning me on to the video.

Edit:  this from the Tonawanda News on January 9

“We had high expectations at the start of the year. We knew that,” said Sabres center Derek Roy, who has only eight goals and 24 points. “Going forward now there’s low expectations. So now it’s easier to play. We just play loose, play fun. Go out there and play hard.

“I think scoring goals has been a key factor this season. The goal scorers got to go out and execute.” ( Thomas Vanek?)

What a surprise, Roy shows his "leadership" by saying "play fun."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ever Wonder Why Darcy Regier Finds It Difficult To Pull Off A Big Trade?

Before the deal for Robyn Regehr in June, the last time Sabres GM Darcy Regier made a trade of signignificance was eight years ago, when he actually made two--Daniel Briere at the 2003 trade deadline and Chris Drury the following off-season.

Between then and now, Regier has pulled off a number of minor ones involving draft picks.

After 14 years of listening to Regier, and watching how he works, Buffalo fans know a few things about the Sabres GM when it comes to personnel:  he believes in building from within, he will give his players every chance to succeed on his team, he's patient to a fault, he falls in love with his players and he has a tendency to let players walk for nothing.

It has been rumored that he also overvalues his players when talking trades with fellow GM's.

Because they're a pretty tight-knit group, GM's generally don't divulge what happens behind the scenes, but in the following interview Toronto GM Brian Burke divulges a few tidbits about the trade process. And he also calls out Regier by name as one of 10 GM's who often speak in a "different language" when it comes down to discussing a potential trade.

In the segment (10:15-mark) Burke points out that Regier is basically a "good guy," but the type of GM who Burke finds "unreasonable" and "unrealistic" when it comes to the putting a value on his own players. It gets to the point where Burke doesn't even want to "waste an hour going over rosters" with a GM like that.

How many other GM's feel that Regier "speaks another language" while going over rosters? Based upon his track record over the last four-plus seasons, it would seem as if there are quite a few.

Thanx to "guest" on Bucky Gleason's Chat yesterday for a link to the above video from The Score.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Pegula's Outburst In Pittsburgh May Have Been Directed At Himself

The honeymoon officially came to an end on Saturday, December 18th with this bit of sarcasm from owner Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, "We saw some great goaltending tonight, didn't we?"

Although his outburst could have been off the record, Pegula insisted they print it. He followed up with "If they [as a team] think they played well, we've got more problems," he said.

It would seem as if Pegula's eyes were thrown wide open watching the embarrassment that was his teams 8-3 loss at the hands of Pittsburgh, and if he thinks this team, constructed as is from GM on down, can get out of this mess, this organization could be in for a long, cold winter of discontent.

Ask six different fans where the problem lies with this team and you'll get six different answers. Ask the members of the Buffalo media what needs to be addressed and you'll get different answers as well.

What everyone will agree on, though, is that "the core" that GM Darcy Regier put together more than four years ago has proven that they can not get the job done as a core group. While the defense has been shuffled to the point where only one of the six regular defensemen--Andrej Sekera--is still with the team going back to 2008/09, up-front four of the Sabres top-six remain. In fact Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Drew Stafford were given top-six roles as well as the mantle of leadership (minus the letters in some cases) dating back to the 2007/08 season.

And one would think that Pegula is finally seeing what we fans and media types have been seeing for the past four-plus seasons.

His anger and frustration after being embarrassed in Pittsburgh was outwardly directed at his goaltending (maybe specifically at Ryan Miller,) but that outward sarcasm may have been directed at himself moreso than anything else.

As an owner with deep pockets and a deep commitment to winning, he could have done a number of things since he took over back in February, but he stayed the course with his GM and coach. By doing so he stayed the course with "the core" and not only that, he doubled down by allowing his "hockey minds" to sew letters on their sweaters thereby dubbing them undisputed leaders--team captain, Pominville along with alternate captains Vanek, Roy, Stafford and long-time Sabres forward Paul Gaustad.

Although their record is right around .500 at the Christmas break, this Sabres team has been embarrassed on four separate occasions dating back to November 2nd. Three of the embarrassments were vs. top-notch Eastern Conference foes--vs. Philly, at Boston and the Pittsburgh game. They were also humiliated in Columbus versus the last place Blue Jackets by a 5-1 score.

Their 7-9-3 record at the F'N Center is not only weak, but it is also tainted as four of their six wins were against teams outside of the playoff mix--Columbus, Calgary, Winnipeg and Ottawa. One was against Toronto and another was against a Washington Capitals team intent upon laying down and getting their coach fired (which happened the day after as Bruce Boudreau was shown the door.) The other was against the surprising Florida Panthers.

Their nine regulation losses include Philadelphia, Detroit and Pittsburgh by a combined 15-6 score while playoff holdovers from last year, Tampa Bay and Phoenix took down Buffalo by a combined 8-5 margin. The other four losses were to two teams on the rise--Florida and the NY Rangers (outscored 7-3)--as well as Carolina and the NY Islanders (combined 6-4 margin.) Add it all up and in nine regulation losses dating back to Philly on Nov. 2, the team has been oustscored 36-18.

For an owner who's frequently at games, especially at the F'N Center, it's brutal. Add in the overall apathy of the fans, punctuated frequently by boos, and you have an abomination staring Pegula in the face. The crowds are beginning to gather and are reaching for their pitchforks and torches. This cannot be a good sign for an owner who believes his principle job is to be liked by the fan-base.

Terry Pegula assembled a group that he considers to be some of the best in the business--Team President Ted Black, Senior Advisor/Chief Development Officer Cliff Benson and Senior Advisor Ken Sawyer.

Pegula "the owner," along with those three did their "due diligence" and decided to retain GM Darcy Regier.

Pegula "the fan," decided in no uncertain terms that Lindy Ruff would remain as Head Coach and proceeded to extend his contract.

Both of those decisions at this point of the season seem to be coming back to bite him. His team is presently in 11th place having gone 3-5-2 in the month of December. They went into the Christmas break on a three game losing streak and have not won back to back games since wins vs. Winnipeg and Ottawa Nov. 8th and 11th.

GM Darcy Regier's off-season acquisitions are off to a rough start. Christian Ehrhoff is on a pace for five goals, well below his back to back 14-goal seasons in Vancouver. Ville Leino is on injured reserve. He scored a goal in his first game as a Sabre, went into the tank for the next 20 games, started to pull out of it then suffered his "lower body" injury vs. Ottawa two weeks ago.

Robyn Regehr has been solid if unspectacular, which is exactly why he is here. He's a minus-6 on the year and had the unenviable task of taking on 6'9" behemoth Bruin Zdeno Chara in "the rematch" last month.

For his part, Lindy Ruff is making lemonade out of lemons, but should not be given a free pass this season. His goaltending rotation has been deplorable (as usual) and he still insists that his defense corps join the rush, even though they've not been able to work through their poor decisions as of yet.

The Sabres power play has been average even with the addition of a shooter like Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff was at his best in Vancouver when he was able to find an opening for a one-timer. He's been stuck on the point almost in the role of a pp quarterback, which should be the role of young d-man Marc-Andre Gragnani.

Gragnani has been a mess this season and it would seem as if the only thing the coaching staff sees is his plus-minus which sits at a team-high plus-11.

The biggest thing for Ruff, though, is that his thought process seems to be in total disarray. And when that happens, no matter what decision he makes it seems to be the wrong one.

The Christmas hiatus for the entire NHL is a blessing for both Regier and Ruff as either could have been chopped after the team embarrassed and angered their owner. Although Pegula has shown patience and has said that panic is not an option, his post-Pittsburgh remark has shown that his patience has grown thin.

You don't get to grow a business into a multi-billion dollar company by sitting idly by as incompetence and/or poor decisions by your subordinates come to the fore. There comes a time where someone will need to be held accountable and it may come down either Ruff or Regier's head on the chopping block.

The team could avert that by moving one (or more) of "the core," but Regier has shown a propensity to stick by his group through thick or thin as if he was clinging on to a dynasty similar to that of the Canadians, Islanders or Oilers. And if Pegula forces Regier to trade one of "the core," does he really need a GM like that?

That being said, Derek Roy's name seems to pop up all the time, whether it be his purported insolence concerning Ruff and his "system" or his production to price ratio. He has value, and would probably fetch the most in a return. Many have been pointing out that the team was considerably better last season when he was out of the line-up so he may be the one to get shown the door.

Others like Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, Jochen Hecht and Brad Boyes up-front as well as Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera and "Grags" on the back-end will have their names pop up, but for various reasons are not as movable as Roy.

Even the once untouchable Ryan Miller could be moved at this point although it's highly unlikely considering how average Jhonas Enroth was in his absence.

But nothing should be off of the table should the organization decide to make a trade, with Thomas Vanek, Tyler Myers and Brayden McNabb about as close to untouchable as they come on this team.

Back in the summer while announcing the Tyler Myers extension, Pegula addressed the points brought up concerning his spending spree and he put it this way, "This notation that we're spending more money than the other teams, we had some things we needed to address, and we have a timeline, so why wait two years to do it. We tried to take care of immediate needs early."

Right now it would seem as if his timeline is still there but his team is going backwards, and it's to be assumed that Pegula won't stand still preferring to address the problems and needs immediately.

Maybe it's wishful thinking on the part of a fan who's watched this team stay the course for four-plus years, but you gotta believe that Pegula will demand something be done.

Spending money is one thing. Spending money on personnel who don't deserve it is another. He's set up his Pegula Rewards Program and so far there are very few who have shown they either have the competence to be worthy of it or have shown their appreciation by going all-in every night.

This as a defining moment for Pegula and his charges. The veil is off and what's staring him in the face is nothing like what he initially perceived.

His anger and frustration at being embarrassed in Pittsburgh may have been directed at his goaltending, but more than likely it was directed at himself.

And we're pretty sure he doesn't like what's transpired over the course of the season thus far.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sabres Troubles Started Earlier Than Some Think

The headlines in today's Buffalo News reads, Sabres Continue December Swoon and although it is true, their drop to 11th place in the Eastern Conference started much earlier as November was a tell-tale month.

But it really began in the month of October. Actually the third game of the season, their F'N Center "home" opener vs. the Carolina Hurricanes.

The chinks in the Sabres "armor" during that game were the same chinks we've seen for the better part of three seasons--turnovers, odd-man rushes against, brain-farts and not enough finish.

"We created a great number of opportunities, but we gave up some beauties. And all those beauties were given up because of plays we didn't need to make. ... We burned ourselves tonight."

That quote was from Lindy Ruff after the Carolina game. You can copy and paste it for any number of games going back to the 2007/08 season.

The Sabres' first game in November represented a different set of problems in the form of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Up until this point in the season Buffalo had not played a team considered a top contender in the east. The Sabres did face Tampa Bay the month before, but they were not a perennial contender in the east the last three years like the Flyers were. Even so, the Sabres managed to get shut out by the Lightning in the first of their home-and-home the they proceeded to blow a two-goal, first period lead on the way to a 4-3 defeat.

The Flyers, despite trading away their top two centers, are loaded up front and still bring that dominating forecheck to the rink. And the Sabres faltered badly. It took all of 6:23 before Buffalo was down 3-0 and Jhonas Enroth came off the bench to relieve Ryan Miller. Philadelphia was in lock-down mode and the game was never really close despite the 3-2 final score.

This was one of those games that sent a jolt throughout the organization. Kind of like when there's a serious plunge in the stock market proceeding a major down turn.

Despite a major red flag going up, the team was able to right the ship for a series of games vs. weaker opponents. Following the Flyers debacle, the Sabres played Calgary, Ottawa twice and Winnipeg, all teams near the bottom of their respective conferences.

And, just as the stock market can regain its footing after a crack, so did the Sabres as they went 4-0 including a decisive 5-1 win over Ottawa.

All seemed well for the much ballyhooed Northeast Division Showdown with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. The Bruins, who had gotten off to a 3-7 start, were looking for their fifth win in a row. The Sabres were also looking to extend their win-streak to five games, but more importantly, they were looking to validate preseason claims that they were amongst the elite in the Eastern Conference.

Neither happened for Buffalo as the team disintegrated in the face of the Big, Bad Bruins-2011. The Milan Lucic hit on Ryan Miller has been shown ad nauseum and the lack of response by the Sabres has been beaten to death, but what that game did was push Buffalo down off of the Northeast hill with a force that they still haven't recovered from.

That game was a beat down plain and simple. The Sabres lost what little heart they had, their confidence was thrown in the toilet and it began the unraveling of one of the top goaltending tandems in the league.

Up until that game, Jhonas Enroth was playing so well that there were calls for him to be the #1 goalie and for Miller to be shipped out. With Miller sustaining a concussion because of the Lucic hit, the fans got their wish. Although Enroth's record was 3-4-1, his gaa went up considerably, his save% went down and he was yanked in two of those games.

No loss was more painful during that stretch than the Columbus game on Black Friday. Even though the Sabres had failed miserably against the cream of the Northeast crop--Philadelphia and Boston--at least they'd been able to take care of the lesser teams. It was something that kept them in the top-six to that point.

Columbus was last in the league when the teams met the day after Thanksgiving, and what ensued was yet another embarrassing loss. It was a Sabres team that looked like it packed it in. Enroth, who had once been the benefactor of tight play in front of him got burned and then pulled in the 5-1 humiliation at the hands of the Blue Jackets.

Although the Sabres were able to split the final two games of November, thanks to a Washington Capitals effort more egregious than the Sabres in Columbus, the three embarrassing, humiliating losses were taking their toll on the team.

When you look at the 7-6-1 overall record for the month of November, it looks as if the team struggled, but still managed to snare a good amount of points, especially when you look at the injury list they had. Just to recap, at one point Tyler Ennis (out since October,) was joined by Ryan Miller, Cody McCormick, Mike Weber as of Nov. 16th. They were all joined by Tyler Myers, Brad Boyes and Patrick Kaleta during a three day span (Nov. 23-25.) And for the Washington game this group was joined by Robyn Regehr and Drew Stafford (which tells you how poorly the Caps played that game.)

But when you break down that record for November you'll find that their seven victories were against teams all outside of the playoff picture at that time. They were beaten handily by teams in the playoff picture--Philly, Boston (1st meeting,) New Jersey and Phoenix. During their last four games they went 1-2-1 with outright losses to last place Columbus and a lower third NY Islanders team. Their overtime loss was to the Bruins in "the rematch."

The "December Swoon," it would seem, is nothing but an extension of how this team has performed against quality opponents ever since they came back from Europe at the beginning of the year.

But, any way you cut it, the Sabres are struggling and there are a loads of questions as to if and how they'll get out of it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Would You Rather End Up With?

 A flashy loss? Or a boring win?

Throughout the first half of last Tuesday's Versus' telecast of the Flyers/Sabres game, Lindy Ruff kept reminding his players that this wasn't pond hockey. Funny. That's probably the same thing he's been preaching for the past four years as his team always tries to be like the '06/7 "Ferrari" he coached in the second post-lockout year. Indubitably, that team was an offensive juggernaut that could overcome nearly any deficit at nearly any point in a regular season game.

But as much as this and the previous four incarnations of the Sabres want to be like that group, and as much as we Sabres fans would love to see that again, they just don't have the overall, top-notch talent and depth they had in 2006. They do have the overall speed of their predecessor, but their ability to finish isn't close to that level.

To Skate? Or Not To Skate? That Is the Question.

On Friday night at home versus the Florida Panthers, that question seemed to be answered in a 2-1 overtime victory for Buffalo. Unfortunately for the fans wanting to be entertained in a winning effort, it looked like a game right out of the late 90's.

"Left-wing lock." "Neutral-zone trap." "Collapsing in front of the net." It all came together to provide about as much entertainment as a Devils game from the first Jacques Lemaire tenure. About the only thing missing defensively was a version of Tampa Bay's 1-3-1.

As boring as it was, the Sabres came out with a victory. As boring as the Devils were, they came away with three Stanley Cups. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

And there's the rub. It comes down to wins and losses and who's left standing at the end of the season.

Still Searching For Their Identity

Lindy Ruff and his team seemed to have been searching for an identity for years, fluctuating between high risk/high reward entertainment and a boring, shutdown defense.

Looking back over the last four years, it was the latter that garnered them the most success. And that style of play, as boring as it may be, could be the identity that Lindy Ruff and the Sabres have been looking for.

After 13-plus seasons with the same head coach and the same GM searching for an identity is kind of absurd, isn't it?

Maybe. But considering all of the changes during their tenure, it's not all that surprising. They've had to continually adapt as the circumstances surrounding them changed.

And, once again, the tandem is adapting, this time with new-found freedom and heightened expectations. Terry Pegula took off the chains of the previous ownership and is letting Regier and Ruff run with it.

But, the first quarter of this season is eerily similar to the first half of last season, which is eerily similar to the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Confusion reigns as they search for who they really are and how they consistently approach games. Where once there were easy definitions like "the hardest working team in hockey" from 1999 and "the team built for the new-NHL" in 2006, about the only definition that stuck is that they're inconsistent and ill-defined, save for the fact that they're considered "easy to play against."

The last moniker, though, is not completely true. They can be tough to play against like in the 2009/10 season and last years playoffs versus Philadelphia, but they can be easily dismissed when they gravitate towards form over function, fashion over fundamentals.

The 2011 playoff match-up versus the Flyers last April is the epitome of the Sabres inconsistencies and provides an interesting study in contrasting styles. After four games the series was tied at two games apiece. In the Sabres wins, they gave up zero goals. In their losses they gave up nine. In their wins they tightened things up and scored the few opportunities afforded them. In their losses, they opened things up and got burned.

Which brings us to this season. Last Tuesday, the Sabres coughed up a three goal lead to the Flyers and eventually lost in overtime. They came out and skated themselves to a 3-0 lead but eventually fell into unhealthy habits like turnovers and defensive zone breakdowns. They just didn't know what to do out there, had no idea as to who they were or needed to be. There were other factors involved in the loss, for sure, but they had no sense of focus after getting that lead, save for the 19th minute of the third when they tied it up with the extra attacker.

It's the exact same thing we've been seeing as fans for the last four years. And it's something that must surely bother Pegula. Just how long he'll live with this remains to be seen. He's said that the role of an owner is to be liked. But as the patriarch of a team that is 6-9-2 on home ice and has played some of its worst hockey to boot, he can't be too happy with the results.

Terry Pegula May Need To Step In As A Marriage Counselor

Ultimately it's up to the owner to define what he wants from his franchise. Presently it would seem as if his GM and Coach are suffering from a divorce of styles. The former seems to be geared towards finesse while the latter is seems to need an increased level of hard-nosed compete. Whether this team, as constructed, can mold the two styles into one remains to be seen, but based upon the last four-plus seasons, it doesn't seem as if the two sides can be reconciled.

The fact is, they have a style of play that's been successful when executed properly. It's not pretty, nor is it flashy, nor is it highlight reel calibre on a nightly basis, but it wins hockey games. Its a style predicated upon simple, safe game that relies on positioning and smart plays. If and when there is a breakdown with the skaters, goalie Ryan Miller, or back-up Jhonas Enroth are usually in sync to the point where they can make a big save. And it's a style that transcends talent-level. It's called playing as a team.

Three days after the blown lead to Philadelphia, the surprising Florida Panthers came to town and the Sabres came away with at 2-1 overtime win. To say this game was a defensive struggle is an understatement. Either goalie could've been one of the stars of the game with a spectacular save or two. Outside of the three goals scored (two on breakaways by the Sabres, the other on a five-on-three for the Panthers,) there were very few bonafide scoring opportunities.

Jason Pominville, who scored the game winner, put it this way, "It wasn't a pretty one, but we got it done against a team that was going really well," he said. "We talked about trying not to hand them opportunities by giving pucks away, and we were better with the puck. You want to generate more, but at the same time I thought we stuck with it."

Ryan Miller ponied on that, "It probably wasn't the most exciting game for the fans, but I'm glad we stuck with our system," Miller said. "We had a tired team that was going to try and trap us, and I thought we did a good job of eliminating odd-man rushes and turnovers. Sometimes that's how you have to do it."

Lindy May Be Coming Full-Circle

The "system" that Miller is alluding to is one that's predicated upon defensive zone responsibilities, a strong back check, a strong compete to get the puck, smart plays to dump the puck out of the zone, using speed on the counter-attack and burying what few opportunities they might have in the game.

This is the same system that was evident in the two shutouts of the playoff match-up with the Flyers last April. And it was a system that helped Miller win the Vezina Trophy back in 2010.

It's also a style of play that Ruff knows well dating back to his first foray into coaching. He was an assistant with the Florida Panthers back in the mid-90's under head coach Doug MacLean. In 1996 the Panthers made an unlikely run all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Florida had an average at best team that went 41-31-10 in the regular season. Their top point producer was Scott Mellanby who's 70 points was less than half of league-leader Mario Lemieux's 161 and runner up Jaromir Jagr's 149. But the Panthers played a solid team game bolstered by a goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck, who played a solid, if unspectacular, game.

That team opened their playoff run against a pretty good Boston Bruins team and defeated them resoundingly four games to one. Next they upset the Philadelphia Flyers--featuring one of the league's top goalies in Ron Hextall and one of the most feared forward lines in the league as well, "The Legion of Doom"--in six games. The Panthers then proceeded to beat Lemieux and Jagr's Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The dream eventually came crashing to an end, as former Sabres draft pick Uwe Krupp scored the Game Four, series-clinching, triple-overtime winner for the Colorado Avalanche. But it was a helluva run for a decidedly underdog group of overachievers.

Ruff saw first-hand how a team, one with a lot less talent then he presently has, can go far in the playoffs. And he brought that with him to Buffalo in 1997. In his first season as the Sabres head coach they reached the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year he managed to get his club to Game-6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals on the strength of Dominik Hasek in goal, and with a team dubbed "the hardest working team in hockey."

Trends Come and Go, But Solid Defense Is Never Completely Out Of Vogue

Lindy's system which came so close would soon be cast aside as GM Darcy Regier rebuilt his team for "the new-NHL." Gone was the grit and determination and the teamwork that went into the five previous playoff seasons. It was replaced by skill and finesse; and lots of it. Regier loaded up for a "new-NHL," one that would take the chains of clutching and grabbing off of skill players and allow them to skate unobstructed.

It's now been nearly four and a half years since "the new NHL" and the "Ferrari" that was the 2006/7 Buffalo Sabres had their zenith. And for the last four-plus years, the era-specific race car Regier built finds itself in a stock car race with restrictor plates.

Just what goes on behind the scenes when Regier and Ruff get together is unknown, but there seem to be a distinct separation between what the former sees as a successful formula and what the latter can do with the pieces he's given.

No Free-Pass For the Coach

Ruff, for his part, is not an innocent bystander in the process, nor should he be exonerated for the on-ice product either.

His failure to provide a definitive style of play has lead to inconsistency from game to game, period to period, even shift to shift. And nowhere is this schizophrenia more pronounced than in net. Their goaltending, is directly affected by the success and failure the team playing in front of them.

In Miller's 2010 Vezina season, Hank Tallinder and Calder winner, Tyler Myers provided a solid top-pairing who were a combined plus-26 on the team and anchored a penalty kill that was second in the league. It was a defense corps that also had dependable vets like Toni Lydman and Steve Montador. Youngins like Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler kept it as simple as possible.

The Sabres ended up winning the Northeast Division that season despite the fact that the they lacked a true #1 center and had a top-six that was brutally inconsistent at times, which was exposed in their six game loss to Boston.

They followed that playoffs with an atrocious start last fall, one that, not surprisingly featured a team that could not figure out who it was. Former Captain Craig Rivet mentioned early on last season that the team didn't have an identity. Eventually, after a sub-.500 first half, they found their way.

Beginning in the 2011 portion of the season, the team roared back and was one of the hottest teams in the NHL come playoff time. On more than one occasion players were heard to say that they were playing more like a team and it would seem as if their inner desire came to the fore. How many time have you heard Lindy Ruff as his team to play "out of character?" For the the first time in three and a half years, the team did exactly that to reach the playoffs as a 7th seed.

In the first four games versus the Flyers, they played so "out of character" that a Philadelphia sports piece the Sabres were said to be actually "out-physicaling" the Flyers.

The Sabres fell in seven games, but it was actually lost in Game-6, in overtime, when a very young defense finally succumbed to an experienced group of talented Flyers forwards.

Enter A 2011/12 Season With Big-Time Acquisitions and Increased Expectations

The premise this season was to get his defense, to jump into the play more. Offensive-minded defenseman Christian Ehrhoff was acquired and the team started no less than five offensive-minded puck movers on the back end. Of course this lead to a high-risk/high-reward style that's been inconsistent at best, a disaster at worst. The Sabres goalies have been hung out to dry way too much and they have been up the the Hasekian task of stealing a game on a nightly basis.

It wasn't until Friday's game versus the Panthers that the team finally seemed to figure it out. Caught in a situation where numerous regulars were out due to injury, the team was filled with an inordinate amount of youngins and borderline AHL'ers called up from Rochester as replacements for the fallen. Ruff simply could not preach anything other than sound, fundamental hockey as he was forced to simplify his gameplan.

And they came out on top versus a team that had been on quite a roll. The Sabres team that showed up at the F'N Center that night was a team that Ruff knows well. It's devoid of the elite Sidney Crosby's, Pavel Datsyuk's and Alex Ovechkin's. It was a group of players working hard as a team in a game where they would allow no puck would go unchallenged, nor would the opposition be allowed to get off a decent shot. It worked. And they won.

They played a similar style the next night versus the Rangers, but unfortunately a combination of weak goaltending by Enroth and missed opportunities by the forwards equaled a 4-1 loss. It wasn't a bad game, per se', but when those two factors come together, it usually ends up in a loss, for any team.

What's the Formula For Success With This Team?

Because of circumstances Ruff was forced to revert back to his original self this weekend, with a coaching style long on defense, short on gambling. And maybe he's even come full circle.

He will have a tough decision to make when his injured regulars return, will he continue to go high-risk high-reward or will be keep it simple? Will it be better for this team to think offense first and try to lock things down or lock it down first and counter-attack?

Will he continue to coach a flashy loss or a boring win?

What would you rather see?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Old-Time Hockey Is Back...

...and the Bruins have the formula for success.

Let me ask you. Did you ever see Daniel Paille do this while wearing a Sabres sweater?

I didn't think so.

Paille was traded to the Bruins in 2009 for a third round pick and a conditional fourth (not exercised.) In Buffalo the former 1st rounder was expected to use his speed and skill to contribute offensively, but it never worked out that way. Boston put him in a depth role on a checking line and placed him on their top penalty kill unit and in his second season with the Bruins he helped them win their first Stanely Cup in 39 years.

The Boston Bruins are back in a big way both literally and figuratively. They have size--Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Adam Mcquaid and Shawn Thorton. They have skill in Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Lucic and #2 overall pick, Tyler Seguin. And they have attitude.

They are the beasts of the East. In fact, right now, they are the beasts of hockey. GM Peter Chiarelli has built an old-school team that can skate, score, and intimidate. It's the type of team that Gordie Howe would fit right in with.

Coming out of the lockout, the Buffalo Sabres were a team dubbed as "the team built for the new NHL." Unfortunately that was six years ago. The league has changed and that trend has come and gone.

What new owner Terry Pegula is left with is a team that has an identity that's passe'. That's if they even know what their identity is.

Because of recent run-ins by the opposition on goalie Ryan Miller, it would seem as if management, led by GM Darcy Regier, wants to legislate grit, toughness and intimidation out of the game. It would seem as if it's easier for him that the league would change back and be more in line with the team that he wants to ice, than it is for him to ice players capable of defending themselves. His "Ferrari," once the darling of the league, is now in a stock car race on a short track with no room to maneuver. And he doesn't know what to do other than turn back the clock.

The trendy team he built still exists, but the style is passe' and as much as he'd like for the league to change back, it can't and its evolution is leaving Regier in the dust.

Lindy Ruff is also looking at an identity for his team and for his part seems to want players patterned after those on the Detroit Red Wings--a team that was built around puck control, intelligence and skill. Wings coach Mike Babcock can guide his team through any dire straights with the above mentioned traits, even if they have average goaltending. They simply get the puck and hold on to it better than any team in the league. And they bury their chances better than nearly every other team in the league as well.

Unfortunately, the Sabres do not have that type of hockey intelligence as a whole right now.

There are other teams as well who have qualities that the Sabres are lacking.

Who wouldn't want the center depth of the Pittsburgh Penguins who boast #1-overall pick--presently the best player in the game--Sidney Crosby, #2-overall pick Evgeni Malkin and #2-overall pick Jordan Staal down the middle. Not to mention #1-overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury in net.

The Sabres, on the other hand, counter with journeyman Jochen Hecht, 2nd-rounder Derek Roy and 7th-round pick Paul Gaustad down the middle. Miller, who is well respected around the league is a former 5th-rounder who many compare to Fleury.

The Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup with an impressive top-six led by #2-overall pick, center Jonathan Toews, #1-overall pick, right winger, Patrick Kane and former first-round pick Marian Hossa who was signed as a free agent. The Blackhawks overspent on other free agents, including former Sabres d-man Brian Campbell and goalie Christobal Huet as well.

Back in 2007, the Anaheim Ducks hastened the decline of "the new-NHL" with their Cup-winning formula predicated upon hard-hitting and intimidation. They were led by future Hall-of-Famer Chris Pronger and augmented by the likes of 6'4", 221 lb. center, Ryan Getzlaf and the aforementioned Shawn Thorton who now has two Stanley Cup rings. They also had league heavyweight champion George Parros.

The overt brawn of the Ducks was balanced by future Hall-of-Famers Scott Neidermayer on defense and Teemu Selanne up-front. The team was balanced with a myriad of role players that came together to bring the franchise their first-ever Stanley Cup.

Now that we've gone through a quick overview of the last five Stanley Cup winners, how does it relate to the present state of the Buffalo Sabres?

Well, post-Chris Drury/Daniel Briere, they still have an identity problem. With "the new NHL" trend come and gone, and a Sabres team heavily weighted on the skill side, they're behind the curve. Although the transition towards a more old-school, Bruins-like grit and tenacity seems to be happening, it's at a very slow pace and began late.

Regier and his Director of Amateur Scouting, Kevin Devine, began the transition with defenseman Mike Weber in 2006 (2nd round, #57 overall)  and kicked it in with the 2009 draft featuring 1st-round pick Zack Kassian (#13,) and third-rounders Brayden McNabb (#66) and Marcus Foligno (#104.) But these are very young players.

Throughout the last few years they've managed to acquire a few bottom-tier old-school players but nothing up-top, save for the recent acquisition of defenseman Robyn Regehr.

Their top-six has pretty much been unchanged since 2007, with a core of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford on the wing, Derek Roy and bottom-six winger turned top-six center Jochen Hecht down the middle. This is a core that has missed the playoff two years and got bounced in the first round the next two years.

It's well known that, save for the 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons, Regier has been financially handcuffed by ownership. Pegula came to town last season and took off the chains giving Regier the financial freedom to do what's necessary to bring the Stanley Cup to Buffalo. And Regier has spent this team to the point where they needed to buryh two contracts just to stay under the cap on opening day.

But freedom is a funny thing. How many stories have you heard where million dollar lottery winners are broke after only a couple of years? They don't know how to deal with this new-found wealth and simply revert to what they know. It's comes down to the ole' leopard changing his spots cliche'. And as of right now, Regier doesn't seem to be changing his spots at all.

Last year he acquired winger Brad Boyes at the trade deadline when they really needed a center. Boyes is a good-sized, former 40-goal scorer, who has skill but seems to lack the tenacity that's necessary in the playoffs for success. He socred one meaningless goal in game seven of the loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

This off-season Regier acquired the rights to former Vancouver Canuck Christian Ehrhoff. He was part of a Canucks team that got beat by the Bruins in last years' Stanley Cup finals. A Canucks team, by the way, that's very similar to the Sabres.

Ehrhoff is an excellent player who has a knack for getting pucks from the point through heavy traffic and is a welcome addition to the team. He also has some pretty good hockey sense and can move the puck very well. But, what he doesn't have is that tenacity to get the job done versus a tough opponent as evidenced in his 0 goal, 1 assist, minus-6 performance in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Bruins.

He's an upgrade, though, over the likes of Andrej Sekera and former Sabre Chris Butler, while his experience makes him a bit more adept than Tyler Myers. But, they're all pretty much the same player. Add in Marc-Andre Gragnani who also lacks an edge on defense and you have five of the top-six d-men being the of the same ilk.

Recently acquired Robyn Regehr and 7th d-man Mike Weber are the only two outside of the prefered Regier mold. And it should be noted that it was Lindy Ruff who accompanied Terry Pegula to meet Regehr after he waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo on day two of the 2011 NHL Draft. Although Regier was available, he attended to other business.

Ville Leino is another big-money acquisition by Regier this off-season. He came from the Detroit system, flourished in the Flyers potent offense and was brought to Buffalo with the hopes that his puck-control could translate into a top-six center role. He fits Regier's mold as highly-skilled and fits Ruff's desire to have Detroit Red Wings-type hockey-sense as well.

"Ah say!, Is
that Ville Leino
or Derek Roy
out there?
He is off to a poor start, although he seems to be perking up, and may end up being an upgrade for the top-six. But as of right now, he's playing like another Derek Roy with his fancy dangling. A whole lotta choppin' with no chips flyin'.

As mentioned in a previous blog concerning him, Leino is deluged with transitional pressures right now and it will take him much longer to acclimate himself to the newness of his surroundings.

Based upon the additions of Boyes, Ehrhoff and Leino, Regier doesn't seem to be able to acquire players outside of his preferred mold even though he had free-reign to do what he wanted. And the Sabres remain a team heavy on skill, light on tenacity.

As shown with the Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident followed by the Jordin Tootoo/Ryan Miller incident, the team is still learning old-school hockey. And that puts them behind the curve, especially with their Northeast rival Bruins playing old-school, Adams Division hockey as the defending champs romp through the NHL right now.

The Sabres aren't built for that and Boston showed that they can be beaten with tenacity and intimidation.

The Sabres lack the skill of the Pittsburgh Penguins--a team that may overcome the Bruins with a heavy dose of talent. But confidence rules supreme, and Boston is skating like no one can beat them.

Last night they beat the Pens 3-1 and Daniel Paille laid out Pens star Evgeni Malkin with a wicked check--something uncharacteristic in Paille and something we never saw in Buffalo.

Paille's hit showed that he can play out of character, something Lindy Ruff has been asking this core of Sabres to do for a very long time. But one must remember that Paille now has a team behind him with some serious attitude. Not only does that attitude permeate the entire team, it allows players like Paille to play "out of character" and let that aspect to come out in his game. Just notice who's on the ice when he crushed Malkin yesterday--Chara and Thorton.

In Buffalo, he never had that. He was a part of the "Ferrari" that was Buffalo, and any attitude they may have had was tame in comparison to the new "Big, Bad Bruins."

The Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup Champions and unlike the Carolina Hurricanes who won in 2006, they are not champions of a trend. They are built to play in any NHL era. Sure they would have had some trouble with the 80's Edmonton Oilers or the early 90's Pittsburgh Penguins, but at the very least, they'd have made both teams earn it.

As for the Sabres, they've got a ways to go to be at that level. It's not so much a "compete" aspect, but a lack of unconscious intensity, anger, attitude and confidence--that's found in nearly every player on the roster. They're searching for that inner attitude so aptly displayed by Paille. They're searching for that pack mentality as displayed by the Bruins, maybe ingrained in the Bruins.

And they're learning it. The best thing to happen to this club was the Lucic/Miller incident. It showed the world, and more than likely the organization and individuals, what they were made of. Not much of anything, really. They did the proper thing after Tootoo ran Miller over the other night. They're learning. But one would believe that more challenges like that are yet to come, more than likely the Bruins next calendar year. That's the way it was back in the days of the Adams Division where Sabres like Jim Schoenfeld, Jerry "King Kong" Korab and even Danny Gare went toe-to-toe with the Big Bad Bruins.

A little while back I did a piece on the Sabres current roster and whether or not they would succeed in the 70's. With Bruins in control right now, the Sabres will need to find more spine because the Boston Bruins and old-time Adams Division hockey is back.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

2011/12 Team Stats--November

After a hot 5-2 start to the month of November, the Sabres cooled considerably and closed out the month with a 2-4-1 stretch.

The Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller incident is worth noting for a number of reasons (including the media attention surrounding it.) The hit and the ensuing 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Bruins was a big hit to the Sabres confidence. Up until that game the Sabres were 2nd in the conference having started out the month going 4-1 (it should be noted that their only loss was against a playoff team, Philly, and their four wins came against non-playoff teams--Calgary, Ottawa (2,) and Winnipeg).

Not only did the Lucic/Miller incident begin a slide that saw the Sabres go 3-5-1, it contributed by sending Miller to the sidelines for the rest of the month. Jhonas Enroth was thrust into the starting role and, although playing admirably, his numbers came back down to earth. Combine that with Miller's incredibly poor November, and you have a team that went from 5th to 14th in goals against average.

The Sabres may have been able to overcome that had the team continued it's goals/game pace, but that dropped as well going from 2.90 (8th) to 2.75 (15th.)

Everything else pretty much stayed the same including their Eastern Conference/Northeast Division standing.

A parade of injuries which at one point sidelined nine regulars is coming to an end as the walking wounded return. Miller may be back as soon as this weekend and Tyler Ennis early next week. Others vary from day-to-day to week-to-week.

Regardless, the Sabres have a very tough schedule coming up against a boat-load of playoff teams. In order to at least keep pace they'll need to drop their goals against and bury scoring opportunities as witnessed by their increase in shots/game and decrease in goals/game. They'll need to do this with a few Rochester Americans in the line-up as well and, if rumor be true, trade winds swirling between Buffalo and Anaheim.

Year to date team stats


  • October--6 (T-9th)
  • November--13 (T-10th)

  • October--12 (12th)
  • November--27 (T 15th)

Eastern Conference Standing:
  • October--7th
  • November-7th

Northeast Division Standing:
  • October--3rd
  • November--3rd

  • October--2.90 (8th)...(#1, Wash-3.78)
  • November--2.75 (15th)...(Philly, 3.48)

  • October--29.4 (18th)...(#1, Det-35.7)
  • November--30.9 (10th)...(Det-34.9)

Goals Against/Game:
  • October--2.20 (T-5th)...(#1, Edm-1.46)
  • November--2.58 (T-14th)...(Stl, 2.00)

Shots Against/Game:
  • October--31.9 (22nd)...(#1, Stl-25.9)
  • November--31.1 (21st)...(Stl-25.6)

Five-On-Five GF/GA Ratio:
  • October--1.43 (2nd)...(#1, Wash-1.64)
  • November--1.12 (T-7th)...(Bos-1.71)

  • October--21.9% (8th)...(#1, Ott-31.0%)
  • November--18.4 (10th)...(Van-24.8)

Penalty Kill:
  • October--91.9% (2nd)...(#1, Pit-92.3%)
  • November--87.6 (5th)...(NJD--94.4)

  • October--50.8% (11th)...(#1, Col-54.7%)
  • November--51.3 (T-9th)...(Bos-55.0)

2011/12 Individual Stats--November

For the second half of November, the Buffalo Sabres looked like they were fielding what looked like a preseason lineup due to an unprecedented rash of injuries. Goalie Ryan Miller, defensemen Tyler Myers and Mike Weber as well as forwards Brad Boyes, Pat Kaleta and Cody McCormick all had extended stays on the injured list. Forward Tyler Ennis spent the whole month recovering from an ankle injury while defenseman Robyn Regehr and forward Drew Stafford missed a game.

Add it all up and it made for NHL ice-time for a bevvy of Rochester Americans. Journeyman goalie, Drew MacIntyre got the call as backup for Jhonas Enroth making his Buffalo Sabres debut in a couple of mop-up roles. Forward Paul Szczechura, aka, "Chewy" (via Lindy Ruff,) also had his debut for the Sabres. Forward Corey Tropp and defenseman TJ Brennan, two players who've spent one and two years, respectively, in the AHL also made their Sabres debut.

Former 1st-round pick Zack Kassian and 3rd-round pick Brayden McNabb hit the F'N Center ice for the first time as well in their first professional seasons.

The Rochalo Sabericans.

For the amount of injuries incurred, the Sabres did a fairly decent job, save for the last two of three games where they lost to bottom-feeders--the Columbus Blue Jackets and NY Islanders--scoring only one goal in each game.

Whereas the term, "as Ryan Miller goes, so go the Sabres" was the mantra for previous seasons, last month it was more about Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville carrying the load with the mantra, "as secondary scoring goes, so goes the Sabres."

Jhonas Enroth has been a revelation in his backup role for over a year, but he came down to earth when thrust into the starting role. The Sabres, who seemed to up their two-way game when he was in net as backup, returned to a more inconsistent form with him as a starter.

Derek Roy started out the month strong, with the team going 5-2-0, but disappeared in the latter portion of the month and with secondary scoring virtually disappearing, the Sabres to ended the month 2-4-1.

Thomas Vanek continues to put up points as does Jason Pominville. Vanek is presently ranks 4th in the league in points (27) and is tied for 7th in goals (12) while Pominville's 17 assists are tied for 6th.

Luke Adam is having a solid rookie campaign. He's third in points (16,) third in goals (8,) and fourth in assists (8) amongst rookies. Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has separated himself for Rookie Of the Year honors thus-far, but Adam is acquitting himself very well two months into the season.

A look at how individual Sabres have done during the month of November.


  • October--Thomas Vanek--15...Jason Pominville--14...Luke Adam--9
  • November--Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy--12
  • October--Vanek--8...Pominville--5...Drew Stafford, Adam--3
  • November--Adam, Roy--5...Vanek, Pominville, Jordan Leopold--4
PP Goals:
  • October--Vanek--3...Pominville--2...Brad Boyes, Stafford--1
  • November--Vanek--3...Roy--2...Pominville, Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Marc-Andre Gragnani--1
  • October--Pominville--9...Vanek--7...Ehrhoff, Adam--6
  • November--Vanek, Pominville--8...Roy--7
PP Assists:
  • October--Pominville--4...Vanek, Boyes--2
  • November--Pominville--4...Vanek, Roy, Boyes, Ehrhoff, Gragnani--2
Primary Assists:
  • October--Vanek--6...Pominville--5...Gerbe--4
  • November--Pominville, Stafford--6...Vanek--5

  • October--Andrej Sekera, +6...Nathan Gerbe, +5...Vanek,+4
  • November--Leopold, Gragnani, +5...Hecht, +4
Plus/Minus (bottom):
  • October--Ehrhoff, -6...Ville Leino, -4...Cody McCormick...-2
  • November--Myers, Robyn Regehr, Mike Weber, -5

3-Stars (1st=5 points, 2nd=3 points, 3rd=1 point):
  • October--Vanek--16...Pominville, Adam--10
  • November--Roy--13...Adam--9...Pominville--8

Time On Ice/Game-Forwards (year-to-date)

  • October--Pominville, 18:00...Vanek, 17:42...Roy, 16:54
  • November--Pominville, 19:06...Roy...18:48...Vanek...17:42
Even Strength:
  • October--Vanek, 13:47...Gerbe, 13:33...Roy, 13:30
  • November--Hecht, 14:32...Roy, 14:14...Leino, 14:13
  • October--Vanek, 3:12...Pominville, 2:57...Adam, 2:16
  • November--Pominville, 3:26...Vanek, 2:23...Roy, 2:41
Penalty Kill:
  • October--Paul Gaustad, 2:56...Patrick Kaleta, 2:40...Pominville, 2:13
  • November--Gaustad, 2:49...Kaleta, 2:41...Pominville, 2:26

Time On Ice/Game--Defensman (year-to-date)

  • October--Ehrhoff, 24:32...Myers, 21:28...Jordan Leopold, 21:06
  • November--Ehrhoff, 24:04...Myers, 21:39...Leopold, 20:48
Even Strength:
  • October--Ehrhoff, 19:21...Leopold, 17:12...Myers, 16:21
  • November--Ehrhoff, 19:06...Leopold, 16:57...Sekera, 16:39
  • October--Marc-Andre Gragnani, 3:03...Ehrhoff, 2:59...Myers, 1:57
  • November--Ehrhoff, 2:56...Gragnani, 2:52...Myers, 2:43
Penalty Kill:
  • October--Robyn Regehr, 3:12...Myers, 3:09...Ehrhoff, 2:12
  • November--Regehr, 3:11...Weber, 2:50...Myers, 2:42


Ryan Miller:
  • October--4 wins, 4 losses, .930 sv.% (ranked 9th,) 2.14 gaa (ranked 21st,) 1 shutout
  • November--5-6-0, .909 (37th,) 2.86 (41st,) 1 shutout
Jhonas Enroth:
  • October--2-0, .946 sv % (8th,) 2.00 gaa (13th,) 0 shutouts
  • November--8-4-2, .926 (21st,) 2.27 (26th,) 1 shutout
Drew MacIntyre
  • October--
  • November--0-0-0, .944, 1.40, 0 shutouts