Saturday, October 19, 2013

Suck it up, Sabres fans, no one said it would be easy


That would be the Buffalo Sabres record after their 3-0 loss at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The reason for the loss was painfully obvious--a big discrepancy in talent. The Canucks boast, among other talents, the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, who have combined for 18 points over the first eight games of the season. Their defensemen lead the league in scoring as a group with Jason Garrison's two goals and six assists setting the pace.

As for the Sabres, they are at the bottom of the league in scoring with an average of 1.11 goals per game. Their only bonafide top-line player is Thomas Vanek. He has three goals and two assists.

In last nights game Vanek thought he scored his fourth of the season. He ripped a shot high glove-side over Roberto Luongo and everyone thought that the Sabres had cut the 'Nucks lead to 2-1. But video replay showed that the puck clanged off of the crossbar, hit the far post and trickled on the goal line never crossing it.

No goal.


In any event, there's only one team worse than the Sabres right now, the Philadelphia Flyers. At least we knew this team would be bad. The Flyers early troubles really came out of nowhere.

Even knowing that this team is bad can't take away the pain of watching the games. This is not to say that the players on the ice aren't trying. Nor is it saying that the team is poorly coached. But when Steve Ott is playing top-line minutes, it shows that the talent-level isn't close to where it should be.

To emphasize the point, Ott made a nice toe-drag on a break Thursday night, but his shot hit his linemate Cody Hodgson who was being steered into a goalie interference penalty by a 'Nucks d-man. Ott had both sides of the net open, but shot it in the middle where the traffic was.

Yup. It's gonna be a long year.

For years now Sabres fans have been clamoring for a top pick in the draft. They'd been watching the team finish in the middle of the pack year-in, year-out with nothing to show for it. When the Sabres made the playoffs, they didn't have the horses to win a series. When they didn't make it to the dance, they ended up picking in the middle of the first round.

When Sabres GM Darcy Regier told fans during the summer to be prepared to "suffer," he wasn't just whistlin' Dixie.

On WGR's Howard Simon Show Thursday morning, Sabres President Ted Black says he hears the fans and feels their pain, but it's imperative they stick to their plan. "We have to stay the course," he said. "We can't panic. I understand and acknowledge the frustration. Everybody wants to talk about the rebuild and getting a lot of picks and drafting high.

If you end up drafting high, it's wonderful. But the pain of getting there is great."

The "frustration" he's talking about is personified by the incessant booing from fans at the F'N Center. In effect they're booing the GM and an organization that's been asking them for patience for a number of years. And they're fed up. The only thing patience has gotten them over the 16 years is mediocrity with a mere two years of hope thrown in.

The architect of this is Regier, and they want him gone.

But the Sabres organization isn't looking at Regier's full body of work that stretches back to 1997. They're only looking at the years Terry Pegula has owned the team. More specifically, when it comes to Regier, Sabres upper management is looking at how Regier is breaking down his "core" and the return he's getting. They're basically starting with the trade of fourth-line center Paul Gaustad for a first-round pick at the 2012 trade deadline.

On GR, Black talked of a "four-year plan" that started with the 2012 Draft and he emphasized not being distracted by the day-to-day occurrences this year. The focus should be on the big picture "of where we are and where we want to go, not getting too bogged down in wins and losses," he said. "It's gonna be a long season. It could be a long process."

The process he's talking about is breaking down "the core" and re-building through the draft, a process that has already begun.

Within the Sabres plan, that "four year cycle," Black mentioned they will have selected, and are slated to select through the next two drafts, a total of 15 first and second round picks. He points out that it's unprecedented in Sabres history and says that only one franchise has had that many in a four-year period pointing to the Montreal Canadians of the 70's.

"That's what we've committed to doing," he said. "We're trying to get as many picks as we can because that's the best place to get top players, through the draft."

Of course what they do with those picks, and how they develop them, will determine whether or not the "suffering" was worth it. But we'll get to that at a year or two down the road.

Later in the evening, an "embattled" Regier was on WGR's Schopp and the Bulldog.

He also acknowledged the boos that were raining down on the team and the calls for his head but said that the entire organization is on the same page and they can't deviate from the course. "I have no illusions," he said, "about what it will take to win a championship. It won't be easy, it will be very difficult. There will be periods like this that we will have to be prepared to work through."

Regier had warned the fans that there would be "suffering." Although I'm pretty sure no one thought it would be this bad this early. Not even himself.

"I fully expect that, myself included, we're going to go 'Oh my God! This is harder than than I thought. This is more difficult than I thought it was going to be,'" he said.

"I thought that when we started," he continued, "and I probably have as much or more experience than anyone in this area."

But Pegula and his charges will continue to focus on the big picture despite the unrest at the F'N Center. "Any kind of day-to-day evaluation that deviates from that--whether we lose a game, or lose two games, or have a start we've had," said Black, "we have to pull back and think big picture. We can't sell out the short run. We can't panic and say, 'Oh my gosh!' to satisfy this need to race to 8th, 9th, 10th place."

He finished that point, "We need to be fully committed to what we're doing right now."

Which is bottoming out and rebuilding.

Unbeknownst to many who were blinded by the "big city signings" two years ago, Pegula has been committed from the get-go to scouting, drafting and developing home grown talent.

He addressed it at his first presser, "There's no NHL salary cap on scouting budgets and player development budgets, I plan on increasing our...scouting budgets"

And he put his money where his mouth was.

According to Black, "in terms of scouting, it's the department where we've put the most effort into and that's where we need to get the most returns."

The "effort" he was talking about was a financial commitment to increase the number of scouts on this continent as well as have a stronger presence overseas.

"Our scouts currently are at 26 or 28," he said. "That's European, American, Canadian coverage. We're far more covered and get a lot more information than we used to."

This was coming on the heels of the previous regime that had shrunk the scouting staff to a bare minimum in favor of video.

Scouting, drafting and player development are ideals that don't lend themselves to instant gratification. From the re-education of Tyler Myers, to younings like Joel Armia,  Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen there will be growing pains as they find their way in the NHL. And unfortunately for them, they're being thrown into the fire at the F'N Center.

Regier thinks it's unfortunate that their initiation to the Buffalo Sabres is a repeated chorus of boos. "It can be unfortunate on one hand," he said, "but you [must] do what you have to do. And you have to overlook some things that you can't change and don't have the ability to impact or influence."

He continued with that train of thought, maybe subconsciously drawing parallels to what he's going through, specifically the report that he was on the hot seat and could be shown the door soon. He said that the players can actually influence things that are out of their control by focusing on their game.

"It is to do your own work first and support the other people you're working with," he said. "That's all you can do. And to the extent that you're gonna run around chasing things you have no control over, you're just gonna make it worse. At some point in a players career, the sooner they understand that, the better they're going to be because it will allow them to focus on their own work."

I had the pleasure of talking to a scout from the Los Angeles Kings last night who was genuinely concerned that the whole situation was getting to Regier. He liked Regier as a person and respected his body of work.

As a long-time scout for the Kings, he also knew firsthand of the pains of rebuilding.

They were in a very similar situation as the Sabres at one point around 2000. They were middling and eventually dropped to the bottom of the league. It was only after bottoming out--and in the process landing Drew Doughty--did they begin their ascent to the top of the mountain.

And it's a model worth looking at.

It's a long road, Sabres fans. No one said it would be easy, so suck it up.

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