Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-13-2017
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of player discontent with themselves and how they laid an egg last night it needs to be said that the whole concept of a bye-week in the NHL was a ridiculous proposition by the NHL Players Association and I'm pretty sure every team will have a beef. Here's Buffalo's.
The only thing worse than a condensed schedule in a particular month to accommodate a bye week is having it in February, the shortest month of the year. Buffalo's got it this season and in order for the Sabres to accommodate the hiatus while still keeping pace with the other teams, the schedule maker has Buffalo playing 14 games in a 28-day month, which is an every other day pace even without the bye. Having a mandated five-day bye week means that the Sabres are playing 14 games in 23 days.
Buffalo had to pack in seven games in the first 12 days of February which included last week where they played five games in seven days with two sets of back-to-backs. After a day off today they'll play four games in six days which includes a matinee on Saturday in the first game of another back-to-back. Buffalo comes out of their bye-week with a back-to-back roadie before coming home on the 28th for the last game before the NHL Trade Deadline.
No one at KeyBank Center will make any excuses and you won't hear any formal complaints, but jiminy christmas, what the hell kind of schedule is that?
With that beef out of the way, simply put, the bad Sabres were on display last night as they dropped a winnable game against the Vancouver Canucks. Sure, they looked as if they were finishing up a five game in seven night stretch, but that's not the reason why they lost, according to the players afterwards.
"We didn't play good today at all," acknowledged goalie Robin Lehner to the gathered media. "It's not even disappointing any more. [I'm] starting to get angry, you know [it's] all talk. We've got to look ourselves in the mirror. It's disrespectful when we have a game-plan--the coach came up with a good game-plan--and we do the exact opposite."
It's not the first time we've heard something like this. The Sabres have laid an egg (or eggs) in every month this season and often times it reverts to the players on the ice not doing what they're asked to do.
The Sabres scored a late first period goal to tie the game at 2-2 and they should've had some momentum heading into the second period. But the second 20 minutes has been a thorn in the side of the Sabres all season long and last night was no different. Both Lehner and winger Kyle Okposo said that the second period was a particular area of focus for the team heading into the game and that the coaches had a plan but the players strayed away from it. The Sabres gave up the two goals in the second and lost 4-2.
While one could see Lehner's nostrils flaring a bit with anger, Okposo laid out Buffalo's performance in the second period in a more frustrated manner. "It was gross," he said. "We just did not play well. It was something we addressed this morning as a group and as a team and we didn't execute it."
I've been hearing a lot of talk about leadership for the Sabres as captain Brian Gionta isn't getting any younger at the age of 38, and name that comes up often is 20 yr. old Jack Eichel.
Make no mistake, Eichel has everything it takes to be a franchise player and he will be that someday. The former second-overall pick has a lot going for him and has tremendous upside, but one thing he needs to realize is that everything he does influences his team and last night it was a negative influence. Simply put, I haven't seen him look that disinterested and/or looking as mentally and physically tired since the Sabres Development Camp scrimmage in 2015 when over 17,000 fans packed the stands to get their first glimpse of the player Buffalo spent two years "suffering" for.
As was the case at camp, Eichel looked like an every day player last night. Check that. He actually looked worse, like the second coming of Derek Roy who's dipsy-doodle turnovers and general nonchalance defined a core group of players wallowing so deep and so long in mediocrity that it forced ownership into a scorched earth rebuild that eventually lead to the drafting of Eichel.
Eichel was anything but special last night and one would think the general dismay tossed about by Lehner and Okposo last night may have been done with Eichel in mind.
"We've got to go out there and execute," said Okposo. "Good teams go out there an execute the game-plan and they do what they're supposed to do and everything else takes over--your natural creativity and your skill take over. We just didn't do that tonight."
Lehner called the players' failure to follow the game-plan "disrespectful," and when asked whether there was an issue in the locker room concerning "guys not following instructions," Lehner didn't mince words. "Yeah it is," he said bluntly. "Look at the veteran teams, it's not science, you know. The good teams out there do the same things over and over again and when things happen, when things get to be a little too much, they fall back on the structure. The structure bails them out. We have a structure but we don't play it.
"If we're [supposed to] chip it deep, do whatever we're supposed to do, [instead it's] let's do another deke, do another play. Or [when we need to] get it out of our zone, it's 'No, let's do the fancy thing.'"
Where have we heard that before?
Lehner and Okposo mentioned that good teams stick to the game-plan. Regardless of external pressures or internal fatigue or even the stature and talent-level of individual players, if the coach lays it out, it's up to them to follow his lead. How many times after a comeback win did we hear from a sweat-soaked, tired player say that they just stuck to the game-plan? Pretty much every time.
It's not unfair to call out Eichel in situations like this as he's the best player on the team--"from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded." Such is the quote that dates back to Biblical times so it's nothing new. Methinks Eichel knows this and completely bought into the concept as he's never taken his talent for granted. His work-ethic has either matched or exceeded his talent-level from the get-go. But he's a 20 yr. old still finding out who he is on a maturity-level and still has some learning to do.
Could there have been a different outcome last night, or in any of the other clunkers Buffalo has had this season, if Eichel had been on his game and helping his teammates follow the game-plan more closely? As proven in the many comebacks they've had this season, as well as the blitzkrieg scoring they enjoy when they're on their game, the answer is, absolutely.
This one would have been a tough one, however, as Eichel and every other player not named Evan Rodrigues and Justin Bailey, two recent call-ups, looked fatigued from having to play five games in seven nights. Then again, the great ones overcome that, like Michel Jordan willing his Chicago Bulls to a pivotal Game-5 NBA Finals win over the Utah Jazz while playing with the flu. Or like Mark Messier carrying the NY Rangers on his back during a grueling Stanley Cup run that ended a 54-year Cup drought. Or Eichel can look a little closer at his parents and how many times they were completely exhausted but somehow found a little bit more while managing to get him to the rink.
This isn't the Finals, but it is and has been crunch-time for the Sabres. With every loss the playoffs get farther away and they really can't afford many more. Like Lehner said, they've been talking but we all know that it's cheap if they can't back it up. Buffalo's best players need to be their best players, like in Toronto, and their leaders need to be their leaders, something we didn't see last night. If Eichel wants to be a leader, he'll need to give a little bit more when he and the rest of his teammates have nothing more to give.