A couple days ago, Rob Ray was on WGR with Mike Schopp and had some interesting insights into the make-up of the Buffalo Sabres.
There's a progression that starts out with Jaromir Jagr and how he seems to appreciate what he's got in the NHL right now, which is a far cry from the perception of Jagr as a loafer post-Pittsburgh, pre-Philadelphia, his current team.
Ray hearkens back to Jagr's early days when the skilled forward "had no choice but to work hard because of Mario Lemieux and the guys that surrounded him." Once they left, Jagr became "a little sloppy and lazy" but now because of his new found appreciation for the NHL, Ray says that "he's become the perfect role model for these young guys [on Philadelphia]."
Schopp then directs the conversation to Drew Stafford and how the big forward doesn't seem to use his attributes like he should and he mentions the lack of a mentor for Stafford once Chris Drury left.
Getting to the root of it all, Ray begins to lay out what could be considered the most profound of Darcy Regier's design flaw when building the Buffalo Sabres during his 14-year tenure as GM for the team: the lack of veteran leadership.
WGR's beat writer Paul Hamilton has pointed out on numerous occasions over the past four to five years that there's no one on the ice that can keep this team calm when the pressure is on. There's no one on this team that says, "don't worry, I got it," as he's put it. At the first sign of adversity, the Sabres invariably fold. In fact Hamilton went as far to say on numerous occasions this season recently that this lack of intestinal fortitude and leadership is the identity of the team.
And no truer words have been said.
Go back to the 2002/03 and you'll see not only lack of center depth, but a lack of veteran leaders on the team. That all changed during in the months from the deadline to the off-season when the Regier acquired centers Daniel Briere and Stanley Cup winner Chris Drury. The following season the team was back on the upswing.
Following their departure along with the likes of Mike Grier, among others, the mantel of leadership fell to the young "core." They missed the playoffs in 2008 and 2009 and it was attributed to a "core" that was growing into their new roles as leaders on the team.
Not one player on that 2007/08 team had a Stanley Cup on their resume' and only three could be considered veteran "warhorses" of the playoffs--defensemen Teppo Numminen, Jaroslav Spacek and Toni Lydman. Numminen had never made it past the second round, but had years of playoff experience while Spacek and Lydman had both made it to Game-7 in the Finals in a losing cause (Spacek, Edmonton, 2006; Lydman, Calgary, 2004.)
The 2008/09 team was essentially the same save for the addition of defenseman Craig Rivet and the return of Numinnen who was out for all but one game the previous season. Yet, the result was the same, missed the playoffs. There was a convienient excuse for Sabres management that season, both Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek missed a chunk of time due to injury.
On a side note, Miller's injury was "lower body" caused when NY Rangers forward Scott Gomez, ran the goalie behind the net. Also of note, there was no on-ice retribution at the time.
Who would have thought that the return of forward Mike Grier for the 2009/10 season could make such a difference. Sure, he was getting up there in age and was very limited in the scoring department, but the leadership he brought this team propelled them to the Northeast Division crown and their first playoff appearance since the 2006/07 season.
Not only that, with a tight defense, buoyed by the addition of Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers, Ryan Miller had the best season of his career and wound up with the Vezina Trophy.
Grier was joined by Stanley Cup winner, Rob Neidermayer up front for the 2010/11 season along with veteran d-man Jordan Leopold and the team took Philadelphia to Game-7 of the opening round, only to fall short.
Grier and Neidermayer retired before this season. Their veteran leadership up-front was not replaced, although the team did add solid vets on the back-end in Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff.
The 2011/12 season can be dubbed "the year of the core." This is the year the those who came together in Rochester during the lockout were to have matured enough to take the mantel of leadership on the team. Former Alternate Captain Jason Pominville wore the "C" and Derek Roy continued with the "A." Another "Rochester-guy" (in the words of Sabres' President, Ted Black,) Thomas Vanek was named Alternate Captain (having served in that capacity for half of the previous season.
Two other forwards, Paul Gaustad, who had worn the "A" before, and Drew Stafford became the other alternate captains.
Five forwards, five of Regier's "core players" and one miserable season where they could end up with a top-five draft pick this June.
So what happened?
"When ya got young guys," Ray says (5:15-mark), "it doesn't matter how talented they are, or what they've done in the past, what you think they might do or how big, it doesn't matter. If you don't have those veteran guys around that are going to teach them the game, and even the game within the game, and life away from the game, then you're kinda just wasting time."
He continues, "You're gonna get improvement out of them, but you're not gonna get the best out of them because I don't care how much the coach coaches, you learn more from the guys around you. You don't learn the game from the coach, you learn it from the veteran players in the room."
Going back to the 2002/03 season, and 2007/08, and this season as well, the prevailing theme, and possibly the ultimate reason for poor, underachieving performances has been the lack of leadership up-front to guide Regier's "core."
Ray gave mad props to former Sabre Dave Andreychuk for the latter's leadership and contributions to the development of himself and the other young players. It was something that Andreychuk did willingly. And he carried that to Tampa Bay, being instrumental in that teams' first Stanley Cup.
Ray sums it up this way, in a way that pretty much sums up why the current edition of the Buffalo Sabres sit near the bottom of the league, "If you don't have that type of person working with your young guys, it's gonna take a lot longer for them to develop sometimes, and sometimes they'll never, ever get it."