Saturday, October 28, 2017

Struggles continue for Sabres and their leadership group

Published by, 10-26-2017

An old, ugly nemesis reared it's ugly head last night and it came in the form of a three-goal Columbus Blue Jackets barrage late in the second period last night. With the score 1-0 in favor of Columbus scored three goals in less than three minutes to take command of a previously tight game and went on to beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-1.

That marked the third time this season that Buffalo has been overrun by a blitzkrieg of goals en route to a lopsided defeat. It happened in Brooklyn against the NY Islanders when they gave up three goals in a 1:47 span of the second period, the first two while on they were on the powerplay. They lost 6-3. In the next game at home vs. the New Jersey Devils, they gave up three goals in a 6:56 second span of the second period, beginning with another shorthanded goal. The Devils added a fourth with just over a minute left in the second period and went on to defeat Buffalo, 6-2.

In 11 games this season the Islanders, Devils and Vegas Golden Knights have each scored four unanswered goals against the Sabres. The first two were routs but somehow Buffalo managed a point against Vegas as they lost 5-4 in overtime.

Words like "fragile" and phrases like "wilt under pressure" were used in those losses as well as others dating back over 10 years. Although the team has shown resiliency, having made a couple of dramatic comebacks this season against Vegas and the Boston Bruins, a blitzkrieg of goals-against is not something that leads to success as shown by Buffalo's two playoff appearances in that time and no playoff series wins to show for it.

Buffalo GM Jason Botterill joined WGR550 Radio's Mike Schopp and the Bulldog last Friday after the team was at home for their first game after a four-game West Coast road trip. Botterill was on before the team faced off against the Vancouver Canucks and was asked by Schopp about the lack of a captain and whether or not that was "an indictment of what [the Sabres] might have in that (leadership) area."

"Not at all," said Botterill. "I see it as a situation where the days of Mark Messier and this one guy leading a team to glory, it just doesn't exist anymore. There has to be a strong leadership group."

It's a rather curious statement considering that eight of the last 11 Stanley Cups went to teams with strong captains:

2008-Niklas Lidstrom (DET)
2009, 2016, 2017-Sidney Crosby (PIT)
2010, 2013, 2015-Jonathan Toews (CHI)
2011-Zdeno Chara (BOS)

It's a curious debate as well considering that the NHL has a long history of captains being driving forces behind their teams' successes. Buffalo hasn't been relevant since they appeared in back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals from 2005-06 with co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Before that it was Michael "Captain Crunch" Peca and the "hardest working team in hockey. And before that it was Pat LaFontaine in the early 90's. The years in between were either spent rebuilding or floundering in mediocrity despite some strong individual talent.

Botterill also followed up the quote about a strong leadership group by saying, "If it's just one person, I think the guys tune out over the course of 82 games."

That's rather interesting as well. We hear all the time about coaches losing the room, but having a captain lose the room is non-existent when there's a captain worthy of his leadership role. One would think that it does happen with lesser captains, but it's something we rarely if ever hear about.

One could surmise that Botterill is simply covering for his leadership group or buying some time until he and coach Phil Housley have a firm grip on what they have on hand. Fact is, some players can step up and take on that captain's role, relish it and succeed in it while others can't, won't or just don't have the faculties to be a successful captain. Those who can will help carry their teams as far as talent, coaching, goaltending, timing and luck will allow and right now in Buffalo, the Sabres do not have that kind of on-ice leadership as indicated by the number of games where they were steamrolled.

That very night after Botterill uttered those words, the Sabres went into the second period with a 2-1 lead and playing very well. But then it fell apart as the Canucks took by over scoring three unanswered goals beginning with what else, a shortie, en route to a 4-2 win.

Having said all that, it would seem as if there's a lot of trial and evaluation going on right now in Sabreland. One would think that if a surefire captain emerged, said player would be wearing the 'C' right now. Jack Eichel is the logical choice, but it might be highly possible that Botterill and the team want him to wait another year, like they're doing in Toronto with Auston Matthews.

The Sabres have their problems right now which includes injuries and inconsistencies but in addition to the possibility of captaincy trial balloons being floated, it would seem as if Housley's doing a lot of experimenting and evaluation as well. Sam Reinhart at center, Jason Pominville all around the top-six at wing, Eichel focusing on his own zone, Zemgus Girgensons up and down the lineup, defenseman Matt Tennyson's second-pairing minutes, recent call-up Zach Redmond replacing previous call up Taylor Fedun on defense despite the latter having a pretty strong game in a win the previous night.

Team-wise Housley has juggled the powerplay and has altered his system to tighten things up. The result is an inconsistent at best, 3-6-2 team.

Last night against Columbus, Ryan O'Reilly went in on a breakaway with the Sabres down 1-0 and controlling much of the play. He was stopped and much of post-game interviews centered around that being a turning point and how that one play sucked the air out of them. Yet the Blue Jackets didn't tack on another goal until nearly eight minutes later leaving a huge swath of time for the leadership group to make a difference.

They didn't and after Columbus scored to make it 2-0, things fell apart.

Such are the struggles of this Buffalo team,one that came into this season featuring a lot of new faces playing in a new system under a new coaching staff. We're 11 games in and there are still far more questions than answers and as long as that's the case, the Sabres struggles will continue.

Buffalo has one game scheduled, a matinee on Saturday vs. the San Jose' Sharks, between now and next Thursday. Perhaps some of the walking wounded come back. Perhaps not. Regardless of what transpires on the injury front, Housley needs to find some chemistry and stick with what works, or stick with what's shown progress. He's finding it here and there, but Housley's team not playing as a cohesive unit from the leadership group on down. If they ever want to get out of the morass they find themselves in, it better happen soon or we'll be seeing more of these lopsided losses and a rather long and obvious evaluation period will be upon us for the rest of the season.

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