Saturday, March 11, 2017

Just who are these Sabres?

Published by, 3-10-2017

For all intents and purposes, the road for the Columbus Blue Jackets have travelled since their inception in 2000-01 has been a rough one and should not be dismissed. The franchise has made the playoffs only twice in that time--in 2008-09 with Rick Nash and in 2013-14, post-Nash--while the rest of their time has been spent struggling to get things right.

Although Nash wasn't the Jackets' first-ever pick, that one went to Rostislav Klesla, a Czech defenseman taken fourth-overall in 2000, he was the first overall pick in 2002 and the player that the team built around until he was traded on July 23, 2012. Nash was a big, 6'3" 188 lb. powerforward who was ranked the second-best North American prospect and one whom the Jackets were enamored with to the point where they traded up from No. 3-overall pick to the top spot to select him.

Columbus made the playoffs once with Nash and were promptly swept in the first round by the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings. In the years after that appearance, the Jackets continued to tread water with Nash until he was dealt to the NY Rangers in a five-player deal that netted the Jackets Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon and a 2013 first round pick (LW Kirby Rychel.)

The Jackets missed the playoffs the following lockout-shortened season but came storming back in 2013-14 and gave the Pittsburgh Penguins fits in a first round series loss (4-2.) With expectations high, but injuries plaguing the team, Columbus stumbled the next two seasons which cost coach Todd Richards his job. But what they established in that playoff series is the identity of the team the Buffalo Sabres will face tonight.

"They're really one of the most aggressive teams, physical teams, heavy forecheck teams from just about anybody we've seen," said Sabres benchboss Dan Bylsma to the gathered media yesterday, "and they've turned [themselves] into a pretty dangerous offensive team with how they play."

Columbus right now is the poster child for playing and winning without a bona fide superstar in their lineup. Their leading scorer and lone NHL All-Star this seaosn is Cam Atkinson and throughout the lineup there are familiar names like veterans Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell and youngins Seth Jones, Brandon Saad and rookie Zach Werenski, but no stand-alone superstar. At least not yet.

The Jackets are playing the exact same style of play today as they did when they battled superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins back in the 2014 playoffs. It's an identity they formulated and stuck to despite a major roster change (moving 2010 fourth-overall pick Ryan Johanson for Jones) and a coaching change as they went from Richards to noted hard-ass head coach John Tortorella.

Which leads to the question, if the Buffalo Sabres are one full season and 67 games into their post-bottoming out period, why are they still trying to find their identity?

Some of the catch phrases we've heard coming from the foot of Washington Street over the course of the tear-down and rebuild of the Buffalo Sabres is "bigger, stronger, faster" and "hard to play against." Forward Marcus Foligno told the press that he thinks the Sabres are "physical, quick, tenacious, mostly in the offensive zone a lot." He calls it "physical hockey and [the Sabres] a team that doesn’t give up."

For those watching, all those words are simply the ideal they're striving for, not something we've seen this team do, at least not on a regular basis. We're still confused about this team and how they can go from beating real good clubs like the Rangers and Ottawa Senators but then get swept by the Boston Bruins or losing back-to-back games against the two worst teams in the league when it mattered most.

Bylsma said yesterday that “you should have no misunderstanding and you should have no questions about who the Buffalo Sabres are and how they play." Yet, he continued, "that’s something we haven’t gotten. It’s something with the 15 games that we are playing that we need to take as a challenge to establish our group.

"We have a lot to prove in the last 15 games with who we are and how we're going to play."

The team has played 149 games under him and their recent 1-5-2 slide with the playoffs reasonably within reach points to a team that's regressed. Forget their projected pace, after watching Buffalo lay a huge egg at home in a 6-3 loss to Philadelphia this is a team that doesn't seem like they have enough in them to even match last season and they're only 15 points away.

Their identity now is that they have none or that they're a Jekyll and Hyde team.

Would it surprise me if they went into Nationwide Arena tonight and came away with a victory? No.

Nor would it surprise me if the Jackets threw 50 shots at the Sabres net and came away with a six-goal win.

Those are the extremes we've witnessed this year and it doesn't really sit well with the fanbase now that the team is effectively out of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season. Sure, injuries and growing pains were definitive factors in the results and even the February scheduling played a part in things, but since the bye week this team folded and it's not something the fanbase can get behind.

Methinks it doesn't sit well with ownership and management either as they're probably wondering why the team is still looking for an identity nearly two years into this portion of their plans.

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