Thursday, April 13, 2017

Requiem for a season of disconnects

Published by, 4-11-2017

To put it the only way we can and should, the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season was a bust as injuries and inconsistencies sent the team and it's fan base on a roller coaster of manic ups and downs with the Sabres finishing last in the division. Buffalo missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season and the 78 points they managed fell short of their 81 points total from previous season. No one in this organization from owner Terry Pegula on down should be anywhere close to happy with what transpired and none should skirt responsibility either.

In retrospect, this may have been a lost season from the get-go as the newly christened World Cup of Hockey got things going in the wrong direction in Buffalo. The whole idea of a Olympic-style tournament sounded like a good idea with players playing for their countries, but having it during NHL training camps may not have been the best thing for a player like newly acquired defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

Kulikov spent his time playing for Team Russia instead of being in Buffalo acclimating to his new surroundings. After Russia was eliminated from the tournament Kulikov finally hit the ice for his first practice as a Sabre later in September. He made his Sabres debut on September 29 and during the game he was checked into an open bench door. He injured his tailbone and back and although he tried to play through the injury, it basically derailed his season as Kulikov was either trying to nurse it back to health on the fly or missed games.

The injury to Kulikov had an impact on the defense corps but what happened to Jack Eichel the day before the season opener dealt a blow to Buffalo's offense. Eichel's high-ankle sprain kept him out of the lineup for the first 21 games of the season and to keep with the theme of key players going down, left-winger Evander Kane broke four ribs in the season opener and was lost for 11 games. Added into that injury was an ailing Ryan O'Reilly, who was suffering from abdominal issues as a result of playing in from the WCoH. Those injuries crippled the offense as vets and youngsters alike failed to adequately fill the void.

On defense, injuries to Kulikov, Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges created openings that were partially filled by depth defensemen called up to Rochester as well as an emergency call-up for Canadian junior defenseman Brendan Guhle for three games in November.

In all the injuries were many and the lack of depth forced head coach Dan  Bylsma to change his approach early in the season as he employed a tight defensive system at the expense of offense. At one point in November, the Sabres were averaging under 1.70 goals/game yet somehow managed to stay around the .500 point mark through those games.

With the return of Eichel for the last game of November, the Sabres seemed to find their offensive legs in a 5-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators. The run-and-gun game that night was fun to watch for fans but gave the coaches ulcers as both teams produced scoring opportunities seemingly at will.

That game seemed to be a harbinger of things to come as players would struggle with their natural instinct to play shinny hockey in seeming opposition to Bylsma's systematic approach to the game. To the uninitiated Bylsma's system seemed too rigid a system for the speed and talent he had to work with, especially with a player like Eichel who has no trouble getting up ice and scoring when the opportunity is there, most times at the expense of defense. Throughout the second half of the season there were plenty of reports from the media that there was a disconnect between Eichel and Bylsma because of their differing apporaches.

This seeming clash of styles was not only on display from game to game but also within games as well. On more than a few occasions with Eichel back in the lineup, the Sabres would fall behind early in the game playing a tighter game only to come back when they opened things up with nothing to lose. It began against the Los Angeles Kings in December and really came to the fore as they won three consecutive come-from-behind games in overtime playing games just like that. Buffalo almost made it a fourth in a row but a couple of questionable calls didn't go their way and they lost in regulation to the Dallas Stars.

That reported disconnect between Eichel and Bylsma also reportedly seeped into the locker room. According to some reports a vet/youngin disconnect began bubbling with the young guns wanting to play one way and the vets following Bylsma's system.

Goalie Robin Lehner called out players for not following the game-plan and O'Reilly placed the blame on poor play during a string of losses on himself and his fellow teammates. Brian Gionta, Buffalo's 38 yr. old captain, also put the blame on the players, but there was a sense that the young brigade lead by Eichel and his 21 yr. old roommate and linemate, Sam Reinhart, had trouble getting on board with what Bylsma wanted. This supposed tug of war between vets and youngins, as alluded to by some members of the press, certainly didn't help unify the locker room.

There's a lot of blame to go around for the disappointment that was this season and no doubt injuries made for an uphill climb all season. But fact of the matter is, Buffalo was in a playoff race in February, but wilted. They also had many opportunities to jump teams ahead of them in the standings from December onward but came up woefully short nearly every time.

Buffalo GM Tim Murray's got himself some work to do for next season which includes shoring up the defense, finding another top-six talent to round out that group and moving some expensive dead weight. But maybe his most important work will involve becoming a conduit between players and coaches as well as vets and youngins. Despite what Bylsma said at his year-end presser, there are and have been disconnects all over this season and it started early and it looks as if that was a big contributor to the Sabres regression.

It wasn't supposed to go that way.

While talking to John Wawrow of the associated press less than a week before the start of the season, Murray told him that his team "should be getting better" then followed it up by saying, "When we stop getting better, than we've done something wrong."

Something, or a number of things, went wrong for Murray's team this season and a good starting point moving forward might be to make sure everybody's on the same page.

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