Monday, January 16, 2017

Sabres GM Tim Murray's in a bit of a conundrum

Published by, 1-15-2017

The excuses aren't there anymore. Maybe one could point out that defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen has been playing the last few games looking as if he's been run into the ground in the first half of the season while his top-pairing d-partner, Jake McCabe is looking as if he's still feeling the affects of his bone-jarring hit on Winnipeg Jets forward Patrick Laine. The duo of Ristolainen and McCabe have been a train wreck lately leaving head coach Dan Bylsma with a huge kink in an already weak defense-corps.

Up front you could say that Jack Eichel hasn't recovered fully from his high ankle sprain, or that Ryan O'Reilly wasn't fully healthy prior to undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Christmas Day. It was probably the best thing that could've happened to O'Reilly as he was finally sidelined long enough for his spasmatic back to recover.

You could also maybe point to bottom-six players like Zemgus Girgensons, Nicolas Deslauriers as adversely affecting the team or even say that  Derek Grant was a real drag  until he was waived (and claimed.) You could look at man-games lost with Eichel (21 games,) Evander Kane (11 games,)  Zach Bogosian (20 games,) Dmitry Kulikov (22 games total) or any number of players from Josh Gorges to Robin Lehner who's bumps and bruises have kept them out for a few games at a time. And you could even add in Tyler Ennis who's season-long absence has kept the Sabres from having a complete lineup this season.

But we're one game into the second half of the season, and those excuses really don't hold water anymore. Although injuries have contributed mightily to an extremely inconsistent season for Buffalo thus far, maybe a lack of chemistry and/or even a lack of identity has contributed more to their struggles than anything else.

When GM Tim Murray took the reigns of the Sabres in January, 2014 he seemed to be laying a foundation that leaned towards a Western Conference style of play featuring big, skilled players who could skate and were hard on the puck. As director of player development for the Anaheim Ducks from 2002-07, he was part of a group that drafted and developed two players who fit that mold to a 'T'--Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Both played big roles in helping the Ducks capture their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2007.

Furthereing that notion was how Murray acquired and described the two Los Angeles Kings prospects he received in a trade very early in his tenure. When called Hudson Fasching and Nicolas Deslauriers, as well as William Carrier (acquired from St. Louis) as "heavies," as in they play a hard, heavy game. One would think that the recent Cup wins for the Kings in 2012, as well as the Boston Bruins in 2011, had something to do with how he viewed winning in the NHL and the Kings winning their second Stanley Cup in three years at the end of the 2014 season seemed to confirm this notion.

But while Murray was building a team with hard to play against heavies, the already fast NHL was getting faster and quicker, especially in the east. Teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning flew to the Cup Finals in 2015 and a retooled, lightning-quick Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the big, heavies of San Jose' last season. This year you can add the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes into the mix as they're both filled with fast and highly-skilled players who have puck-possession and shooting on their minds. The Leafs are in a playoff spot right now with eight rookies playing, while the Hurricanes seem to be on the rise.

The Sabres have had trouble keeping up with the east as shown by their 9-14-7 record in the conference. Against the west, however, the Sabres are 7-3-2. Conversely, Tampa is 18-12-3 vs. the east, 2-8-1 vs. the west; Pittsburgh is 19-8-2 vs. the east, 7-3-3 vs. the west, Toronto is 14-7-3 vs. the east, 6-6-5 vs. the west and Carolina is 13-11-4 vs. the east, 8-4-3 vs. the west.

So while the Sabres have been faring well with a heavier style against the heavies of the Western Conference, they're regularly getting outskated and flustered by the quicker, faster teams in the Eastern Conference. Versus the aforementioned teams--Tampa, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Carolina--the Sabres are a combined 1-5-1 and have been outscored by a 21-10 margin.

This is not to say that the Sabres don't have speed, they do, but managing what the opposition throws at them seems to be far more difficult against foes from the eastern conference.

Nor is this to say that injuries haven't played a role in how the season has unfolded thus far, because they have. Eichel especially. Without him they weren't scoring and tried to win 2-1 games while with him they were scoring but are allowing more goals. In both portions they're near the bottom. It's been like a comedic skit where someone punches you in the gut when you're covering your face, then when you protect your belly you get smacked in the face. And so on and so on. But for Sabres fans, and one would assume everyone under the Pegula Sports and Entertainment umbrella, it's not that funny being on the receiving end.

There are disconnects all over the place with this team right now. Murray looks to be behind the team-building curve, Bylsma seems to be having trouble finding chemistry or he's quick to change things when said chemistry briefly evaporates and there are stretches where his players look either uninterested or overwhelmed or worse yet, both.

WGR's Paul Hamilton had a piece on what goalie Robin Lehner saw on TV recovering in Buffalo while the Sabres played the last two games on the road. "I think controlling momentum is the biggest thing for me sitting watching on the couch," Lehner told Hamilton and the rest of the media today.

“If we score a goal maybe we need to play a little simple, not take any risks for a little bit and it’s the same when we get scored on, maybe we just chip it in a little bit and play real simple because it feels like when we score goals, we score in bunches, but when they start scoring on us, we’re scrambling.” he added, “We have a couple of good games and then we get away from it. It’s one step forward and two steps back. It’s not going to come from one guy, it’s not going to come from 10 guys, every single guy has got to get on the same page and we’ve got to totally buy-in to the system.”

And when buying into the system it helps to have some familiarity with your linemates. Bylsma, who's notorious for juggling his lines will probably do so again after the Sabres dropped two in a row. From today's practice Hamilton had these lines:

Foligno -Eichel -Reinhart
Kane -Girgensons -Gionta
Carrier -Deslauriers -Moulson

Hamilton also stated that Ennis isn't a 100% go and that the team hasn't ruled out bringing up a center for tomorrow's matinee against Dallas.

Unfortunately for us Sabres fans, it looks as if we'll be on a roller coaster for the rest of this season with the team alternating between good and bad stretches. Case in point. Since Eichel's return Buffalo went 5-2-3 then 1-4 followed by 3-0-1 and now 0-2-0. Could they end up going on a prolonged win streak? Sure, plenty of teams do. Could they go on a prolonged winless streak as well? You betcha. Will either happen? Hopefully the former for a much longer stretch than any of the latter.

Buffalo has six games left before the All-Star break and 20 games before the February 28 NHL trade deadline. Although some would wish to blow things up and tank again, it's hard to imagine because a.) ownership and management probably aren't on board with that and b.) they have a little too much talent to finish at or near the bottom.

Right now we're not even sure whether Murray will be a buyer or seller at the deadline. One would think that even if he were in the position to become a buyer, it's highly doubtful he could acquire anything more than a plug-in rental for his lineup as it would seem as if his team-building will continue moreso in the off season. On the seller side, save for defenseman Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov, and maybe forward Girgensons, the Sabres are probably intent upon keeping players other teams may want. So what we see is, for the most part, what we'll be getting for the rest of the season.

Murray is in a bit of a pickle unless this team as constructed can right itself. He's been trying to build on the premise of bigger, faster and harder to play against but the eastern conference has been akin to bees swarming a large intruder and they haven't been able to overcome that. Murray could do any number of things, including firing Bylsma, and he could also make a trade for a desperately needed top-four defenseman, but it would cost scoring up front which will probably end up being counter productive.

Or he could just stick to his plan and let Bylsma and the players work through this.

Murray has the players and although team-building isn't without flaws, it's never a bad idea to build a team with size, speed and skill coupled with intangibles like hard work and leadership. The team may be behind the curve a bit in a quick, fast-paced eastern conference but defenses always catch up to offenses and we'll probably see that happen relatively soon, perhaps as early as this season. Staying the course for this season might be painful for us to watch at times however it might be best for him to let this season play out as it will.

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