Saturday, March 18, 2017

On the downward spiral, and the chasm between the players and Bylsma

Published by, 3-17-2017

It’s more than just the fourth consecutive 2-0 loss for Buffalo in Los Angeles, which is strange in and of itself, especially when you consider the last Sabres player to score a goal at Staples Center was, of all people, Craig Rivet (nothing personal) back on January 21, 2010. It’s also more than the 2-8-2 swoon the Sabres have found themselves in since a three-game winning streak had those in Sabreland thinking about a possible playoff run.

After a rough start to the season and some inconsistencies along the way, the Sabres were seemingly righting the ship with a 13-8-2 record to start the 2017 portion of the season. But a decidedly tired Sabres team incurred a rough 5-1 loss at home against the Chicago Blackhawks just prior to their bye week and since then they've been spiraling out of control. Or should we say a surprisingly fragile team soon found themselves losing games they had no business losing and eventually succumbed to apathy. The result is that of a team that now looks content to ride out the season.

The Sabres are in a downward spiral and they neither have the will or the courage to play out the rest of the string as professionals playing for a sense of pride. As a group, they have no pride in themselves or the crest and the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Last night in Los Angeles most of the skaters looked as if they were taking a casual walk down the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the first half of the game, prancing and stargazing while Los Angeles was busy peppering goalie Robin Lehner with 15 first period shots. Were it not for a rather stodgy style the Kings play and the stellar goaltending of Lehner, the Sabres would have been in the same situation they were in when the Columbus Blue Jackets visited last week--down 3-0.

Despite being outshot 15-2 in the first period, the Sabres and Kings were tied 0-0 heading into the intermission. The Sabres allowed 36 Los Angeles shots on goal last night in what's been a very disturbing trend. In last eight games against teams not named Arizona and Colorado, the Sabres have hung their goalies out to dry giving up an average of 37.5 shots-against/game. That ain't right. In fact it's downright shameful and their 1-5-2 record in those games shows just how pitiful this team has been.

Look, I get it. Coach Dan Bylsma and his systems have been clashing with the on-ice personnel all season long, probably dating back to last season. That much has been coming out of the media and ever so subtly (or not so subtly at times) through the players all season and the numbers indicate that this is a group of players that has tuned out their coach. If Bylsma somehow makes it to next season, it will be a miracle, especially when you consider that the team is looking to start contract-extension talk with franchise center Jack Eichel, a player who's been at odds with Bylsma. We know how this ends. Coaches don't sell tickets, star players do.

I also get the fact that this team is pretty weak on defense. D-man Taylor Fedun was called up from Rochester yesterday and caught a flight to Los Angeles. Although he didn't make it in time for the team's optional skate, he was on the ice and played a real solid game. That he was probably the Buffalo's best defenseman last night tells us a lot about where the rest of the d-corps heads were at.

We should also give a shout out to the line of Evan Rodrigues, Marcus Foligno and rookie Hudson Fasching who took the play to the Kings nearly every time they were on the ice. But they, along with Fedun, got no help from the star players on this team.

Sure Eichel and the like eventually woke up. They had spurts where they played extremely well and were all over Los Angeles, but it wasn't nearly enough. Buffalo got lucky once in the last handful of games as they eventually came back from that 3-0 first period deficit against Columbus to win, but for the most part they've looked like a team that packed it in.

The Sabres have 11 games to go. They're out of the playoffs and only a few of players are playing for a Buffalo contract next season. Captain Brian Gionta's one of them. He's been saying that he wants to return and at a reasonable price he very well could be back. Fedun is unrestricted as well and should be offered an extension. He played well on his first recall before a numbers-crunch sent him back to Rochester. Does he want to return is the big question. The other two UFA's are defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson.

Kulikov came over in a trade with the Florida Panthers and WGR550's Paul Hamilton said that he seemed devastated when he learned he was leaving Florida. Add a shortened training camp from Kulikov's participation in the World Cup of Hockey and the preseason tailbone injury that plagued him this season and one can see why Hamilton thinks this guy wants to be on the next train out of Buffalo once the season ends.

At one point in time Franson was considered a slow-moving defenseman with some offensive acumen who could man the point  on the powerplay. Take out the latter two positives and you have a defenseman that slowed considerably. It's been rough for Franson and despite his proclamations that he wants to return, we're not sure the feeling's mutual.

There will be changes that, more than likely, will include a coaching change thanks to their obvious display of disdain for Bylsma and his methods. However, it probably won't happen until after the season and there's still 11 games to play.

This group of players is not the first to pack it in because of their coach and they won't be the last, but there are 11 games to play and they should man up. I don't expect the Sabres stars to go all out to block a Shea Weber slapshot or to take on a heavyweight, but they should show a little professional pride and skate like it's an honor to play a game for a living.

Murray isn't a dummy. One would think that after watching this parade of stinkers over the past few weeks that he gets the hint--this team, or at least the key components of this team, are neither having fun nor are they winning and that's falls on the coach. Yet those same players should be forced to look at themselves in the mirror. They have enough talent to play to a higher level should they choose to but choosing not to, especially when they've made their message clear, is unacceptable.

The defense can be fixed, the schemes can be altered and the people in charge can make things better, but if you don't have enough character and/or maturity to know when to stop, that's on the individual. And it starts with the star players.

Tonight the Sabres finish their three-game West Coast swing with a trip down I-5 to Anaheim to take on the Ducks, a team that smoked them 5-2 on February 7 in Buffalo.

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