Let me premise this article by saying that I don’t like the Buffalo Sabres. I try really really hard sometimes to like them, but I just can’t bring myself to root for them.
Growing up south of Buffalo and playing hockey, I certainly was a fan of the Sabres and in particular, Alexander Mogilny. But as I grew older, things began to change.
Mogilny was traded, new ownership took over, and a new logo and colors were introduced. Somewhere in the early to mid 90’s, I stopped being a Sabres fan.
Maybe it was being away from home playing hockey and then for seven years for school. Maybe it was my favorite player became a certain No. 88 from Philadelphia who was intensely disliked in Western New York, leaving me very bitter.
Maybe it was meeting new people who liked different teams and players and stepping outside of that hometown mentality.
At any rate, in 2009 I am their biggest critic and I sometimes love to watch them suffer. But deep down I do wish they could turn things around and someday win a Stanley Cup because Heaven knows Buffalo could use a championship.
So just three days into the free agency signing period here is my critique of the Buffalo Sabres:
Problem No. 1: Defensemen
The Sabres have an above average goalie in Ryan Miller, an average offense, and a below average defense. Taking a look at the current roster and bearing in mind last year’s play, it is no stretch of the imagination to say that the current group wouldn’t stand out in the AHL.
The three highest paid Sabre defensemen in Craig Rivet, Toni Lydman, and Henrik Tallinder are all over 30 and each of them is no better than a fifth defenseman on a good hockey club.
Assuming Andrej Sekera is re-signed (RFA), the Sabres do have three nice young blue-liners including Chris Butler and Nathan Paetsch.
Still, these players won’t knock your socks off either and their potential is most likely tapped out at a decent third or fourth defenseman, respectively.
With the loss of Brian Campbell a season and a half ago and now with Jaroslav Spacek bolting to Montreal via free agency, the Sabres no longer have a strong puck moving defensive corps.
Sure the current group isn’t bad at moving the puck and it is probably their best attribute, but they are not among the elite NHL squads in that category.
This leaves the Sabres with a defense that is not physical (more on that in a bit) and one which lacks an offensive presence, especially on the powerplay. For any NHL team, this lack of a strong defense means making the playoffs a long shot.
Problem No. 2: Lack of Toughness
There is a lack of toughness not only on defense for the Sabres but throughout the entire team as well. Only Paul Gaustad and Patrick Kaleta bring a physical presence on a night-to-night basis, and these players are 3rd and 4th liners with minimal playing time.
When virtually every player on your hockey team doesn’t finish checks and loses the majority of battles in the corner only failure occurs. Teams can get away with this style of play for a while, even for an entire season, but they cannot during the NHL playoffs.
This is all the more surprising given that head coach Lindy Ruff was a career journeyman during his playing days in the NHL and was a tough-as-nails grinder. This anomaly may have something to do with the last problem plaguing the Buffalo Sabres.
Problem No. 3: Management
This is by far the worst problem for the Sabres as it is the reason for the prior two weaknesses being there in the first place. I think Buffalo could use a new coach, but I don’t think Lindy Ruff is the problem per se.
Like most coaches in professional sports, Ruff looked great with a strong team after the lockout but mediocre with an average club in front of him.
In the Sabres defense, they are a small-market team, effectively unable to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap and they typically draft well. But year after year, Darcy Reiger seems to live in his own world of illusion and fantasy.
Earlier this week Reiger stated that he didn’t believe there would be much movement when free agency opened.
What happened? The elite players and a bulk of others were signed within hours and Reiger was left filling the departed Spacek’s roster spot with Steve Montador.
Several years ago the Sabres front office gushed about how well their team was set up with the new rules the NHL was implementing. That was true, but Buffalo suffered from what I call the “video game” disease.
They had assembled an array of offensive talent that was entertaining and high scoring, but not particularly suited to playoff hockey. Over the past four years, the Sabres have been the least physical team that I can ever remember.
Without a bona fide No. 1 line, the Sabres prided themselves on three lines that were just as good as each other. However, this isn’t the way to win hockey games.
You can’t just sign small, offensively gifted players without any toughness, give them fewer minutes than they should get, and expect great results. You need a couple star players up front with gritty support, strong tough defense, and top notch goaltending.
As it happened, the Sabres played very well in the regular season for two years after the lockout but faltered during the playoffs.
Drury, Briere, and Campbell all left town and what did the Sabres have to show for it? Literally nothing. That can’t happen to small market teams.
With still nearly $10 million in cap space, the Sabres should have tried to lock up a tough defenseman like Mike Komisarek. They could have even tried to pick up Jay Bouwmeester and gained that All-Star level blue-liner they’ve lacked for 20 years.
Instead, Buffalo will most likely sit on that extra money, in hopes that without a playoff appearance the team will earn a profit.
Then the Sabres will go through the 2009-10 season playing well at times while looking horribly weak at others while Niles Crane, I mean Darcy Reiger, will tease fans with a big late season move to bolster the club, only to bring in an average player.
All signs are pointing to another season similar to 2008-09 and the Sabres will struggle to make the playoffs.
Despite strong season ticket sales and continued support from the fans of Buffalo, Darcy Reiger and Lindy Ruff may find themselves out of a job by next spring.