Thursday, August 17, 2017

A look back at the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres season--March

Published by, 8-16-2017

Late in 2010, Bucky Gleason of The Buffalo News did a piece on Terrance M. Pegula, who at the time was attempting to purchase the Buffalo Sabres. Amongst many things in his profile Gleason noted that Pegula had season tickets to the Sabres when they played at Memorial Auditorium and could "tell you the section, row and seat number."

Pegula had his opinions while following his favorite team as a fan. Gleason pointed out in his article that the owner in waiting "was upset when Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left the organization [in 2007] and couldn't comprehend how the team let Henrik Tallinder get away [in 2010]."

At the March 1, 2017 NHL Trade Deadline, the opposite might have been true in the view from the owner's box. It was said that Pegula (as well as nearly everyone in Sabreland) couldn't figure out why defenseman Dmitry Kulikov wasn't traded.

Kulikov was acquired by GM Tim Murray at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo as the Sabres and Florida Panthers swapped defensemen and picks. Gone from the Sabres was defenseman Mark Pysyk, referred to as "an analytics darling," by Murray and in came a defenseman whom he thought would be a top-four, at least. Unfortunately Kulikov suffered and injury in the preseason and was never quite right from October through February.

However, Kulikov was healthy to the point where he could be of use in a depth-role for a playoff-bound team. Rumors had it that there was at least one offer of a lower-round pick for him, but for some reason Murray balked and decided to keep him. Why? We're not sure, especially when it was revealed that Kulikov did not like playing in Buffalo.

And I'm sure that question was posed to Murray by Pegula at their end of season meeting. Murray, however, had no answers. After the two met, Gleason tweeted this, "I'm told Pegulas were looking for answers on how to proceed, and Murray didnt have many, or any."

The Sabres entered the month of March with the same team and playoff prospects all but ended. The began the month none points out of third place in the division and six points out of the second wild card spot in the East. Sure, they could still make the playoffs, but being six points behind and having five teams to jump in the wild card race is a pretty tall hurdle with 19 games to play.

Buffalo started out well with a win over Arizona, but the weight of the season took it's toll. It's best to remember that in addition to injuries, there were disconnects on and off the ice. Coach Dan Bylsma's system didn't sit well with some players, including franchise center Jack Eichel, and that would eventually engulf the team. Goalie Robin Lehner called out teammates for not playing the system, center Ryan O'Reilly and captain Brian Gionta blamed the players for the team's woes and in the locker room there was talk of a disconnect between vets and youngins.

The two games they blew post bye week didn't help either and after that win against the Coyotes to begin March, and a shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the bottom fell out. Buffalo dropped out. They dropped three in a row and five of their next six. Despite the fact that they would counter by ending the month by winning four of six games, the Sabres were eliminated from the playoffs on the last day of the month after a 3-1 loss in Columbus. It was the sixth consecutive season the Sabres failed to make the playoffs.

Of note in that Columbus game, forward Sam Reinhart was benched in that game by Bylsma for "violating team policy," according to Bylsma, who would go on to say, "We’re going to move forward from here. Disappointing, but it happened and we dealt with it. We’re going to move on from here.”

Reinhart apparently missed the team stretch when he thought the time was a half-hour later than it was. Murray and Bylsma had instituted a zero-tolerance policy for things like that and Reinhart was suspended, although he did dress for the game because Kyle Okposo was ill and the Sabres needed Reinhart to fulfill the required 20 skaters. He sat on the bench the entire game.

Murray said of the incident (via The Buffalo News,) "To me it's unfortunate that anybody broke the rule the first time after it gets changed at that point. To have it be a second-year player like Sam, he might have been the last guy. If I had made public we tweaked the team rule and who is the last guy I think would break it, he might have been the guy I would have brought up. I would have said, 'It won't be Sam.' But it was."

Such was the downward spiral of the team at that point in the season.

About the only real bright spot in that month was the Sabres dinging the hated Toronto Maple Leafs playoff hopes a bit with a 5-2 victory at home. As everyone on the QEW knows, when the Leafs hit town, they occupy the Sabres' arena and it was no different for that game. With huge clumps of Blue and White throughout KeyBank Center, boisterous Toronto fans give the feel as if it was their home game.

For a fiery competitor like Eichel, who had all kinds of trouble this season from injury to rumored coaching problems, having the Leafs in house dominating the crowd didn't sit well. After scoring his second goal of the game to put Buffalo up 5-2 he went over to a clump of Leafs fans along the boards with an in your face moment:

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