The 0-4-1 Buffalo Sabres head to Chicago tonight buried at the bottom of the standings as one of only two winless teams in the league (NJ.) The Blackhawks are the reigning Stanley Cup Champions. Not hard to figure out how this one will end up.
After Thursday's loss to Columbus, a winnable game, reaction from the fans and media ranged from dull numbness to incessant whining to "The Sky Is Falling!!!"
Anyone who thought the Sabres would be more than what they are at this point in the season had delusions of grandeur for this club. Buffalo is a very young team with one top-line forward and a myriad of players asked to fill roles that are just beyond their talent level.
GM Darcy Regier warned us.
The only thing keeping the Sabres within striking distance in the five losses is their goaltending. Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth have played well. Very well. Like they've done before.
Miller has been "suffering" for years as he watched the talent level on the team decline to where it is right now. Save for the 2009-10 Vezina season he has been hung out to dry mercilessly in the name of scoring--team scoring from as many different lines as possible. Whether it was the "Ferrari" team or Regier's "core" or former coach Lindy Ruff having is d-men continually jump into the play, it all came back to Miller and the back-ups to bail this team out.
The talent level on the Sabres has dramatically decreased over the years to the point where winger Thomas Vanek is the only viable top-line player and d-man Christian Ehrhoff is the only top-paring d-man. Which isn't too bad of a foundation for a rebuild, especially with Miller in net.
Unfortunately, it looks as if Miller and Vanek will be gone at some point during this season, which means Ehrhoff will be all that's left.
If y'all thought it was bad now, wait until Miller and Vanek are gone.
It's not to say that there isn't potential top-end talent in the pipeline. There's plenty of talent and a portion of it will develop over time. Just how much potential will be reached is yet to be determined.
Right now the Sabres have some pretty good young talent on the team that will be the foundation of the "new core" moving forward.
The elder statesmen of this group are Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis. All three are from the 2008 draft.
Hodgson just inked a six-year deal with the Sabres in September. Right now he's a top-line center, but his $4.25m cap-hit suggests the team sees him in a top-six role as a #2 center.
In 2011, Myers signed a seven year contract with at a cap-hit of $5.5m.
Owner Terry Pegula had mentioned that he didn't want to see his promising players walk out the door because of financial constraints. He allowed Regier to drop a $10m signing bonus on Myers and pay him $28m of the $38.5m over the first four years of the contract.
In a shrewd move, the Sabres are paying him like an elite, shutdown d-man over the course of the first four years of the contract, but overall, his cap-hit is that of a #2/3 d-man. In addition, they gave him a No Trade Clause, but it doesn't kick in until the 2016-17 season.
If things do not work out by then, Myers will be easily movable as there will only be $10.5m and three years left on his contract at a $5.5m cap-hit, a situation that would allow a low-budget team the ability to reach the cap-floor while laying out about $2m less in salary.
As for Ennis? He will be a restricted free agent at season's end and no one knows what will happen. In fact, as of right now, they're not even sure where to put him in the lineup and have used him at center and on the wing.
He has top-six talent, and has scored at a solid pace over the course of the last two seasons. He's better suited at the center position, but likely will end up on the wing with Buffalo. And he's better suited for a top-six/2nd unit powerplay role, but will probably end up as a top-line winger/1st unit powerplay guy for now.
Or, he may end up as trade-bait.
After those three, the charge of the youngins is on.
Save your sanity, Sabres fans. You can drive yourself insane waiting for Drew Stafford to get waived, or watching Mike Weber flail on the ice, or pray that Ville Leino is healthy by years end so the team can buy him out.
Don't scream your brains out when you see Kevin Porter centering the second line or Cody McCormick doing a poor-man's Adam Mair impersonation.
Instead, look to the future.
Watch defenseman Mark Pysyk use his pure hockey sense in a shutdown role.
Follow Zemgus Girgensons in perpetual motion scanning the scene and working his ass off to be in the right positon at the right time.
Get yourself pumped up as Marcus Foligno heads to the corner to battle, either coming out with the puck or coming out swinging.
Watch Johan Larsson and his two-way game and look for the ever-present, yet subtle, agitator in him.
Notice how unnoticeable 18 yr. old defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen can be on the ice.
And finally, follow the prospects in junior and college. (a good place to start is sabresprospects.com)
Wingers like Gustav Possler and Nicholas Baptiste are off to hot starts while hulking defensman Brady Austin, a former 7th round pick (2012) is starting to get some attention. He'll get even more when he's paired with 2013 first-round pick Nikita Zadorov on the London Knights once Zadorov gets sent back.
Defenseman Jake McCabe captained the USA Junior Squad to Gold at the IIHF tournament this year. He's a junior at Wisconsin and may be bringing his grit, leadership and two-way game to the pros next season.
You can also keep an eye on Matt Hackett in the crease for Rochester as well as goalie Linus Ullmark who's in the Swedish Elite League for what may be his final season overseas.
Yeah, it sux to be a Sabres fan right now.
Save your sanity. The Sabres haven't gone through a change like this since 2002-03, the last time they had a top-five pick. And that ended up working out pretty well (albeit, not perfect.)
A year or two down the road we'll be seeing the fruits of Pegula's commitment to the scouting and developmen side of his equation.
And, if they use the Pittsburgh/Chicago model for rebuilding, we'll not only see a strong foundation of current players and prospects, but we may even have one or two top-prospects anchoring the top-line as well.