It is clear to see nearly one month into the start of the regular season that all is not well in Sabreland - the team has started 3-7-2, Lindy Ruff has already decided to bench a healthy team captain in Craig Rivet, and there's no end in sight. Fans have already started to point their fingers as to who's the culprit - I've heard rumblings from message boards seemingly blaming everyone from Tyler Myers to Lindy Ruff to Rip Simonick, ok..maybe I made the last one up. But the fact still remains that this team as a whole is bleeding without a medic.
So what's the problem? Well as is often the case, you can never point the finger at a single issue. So let's break the team down piece by piece and dissect shall we?
We'll start off with the men between the pipes. Ryan Miller played out of his mind last season and was rewarded with a Silver Medal in Vancouver along with a Vezina trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. Simply put, he is a world class athlete. Furthermore, he is what I interpret to be the true captain of this team - his work ethic, his dedication to winning, his game time intensity, and his performances truly speak for themselves and are second to none on this team. But this season his statistics are down - 2.22 GAA along with a 92.9% save percentage last season compared to 2.71 GAA and a 90.3% save percentage this season so far - the numbers do not lie. Is this due to the team in front of him not playing up to par or have all the rigors of his popularity and success started to wear him down? Perhaps even a bit of a winners' hangover has taken place? (I'm looking at you New Orleans Saints )
Or is it the offense? Drew Stafford has been a pleasant surprise so far this season - coming into camp actually in shape (gasp!) and ready to play. He seems to have found his mean streak again, especially when it comes to using his body to power his way to the net with his size. Derek Roy leads the club with 13 points in 12 games while his linemate Thomas Vanek has 7 points - the combination of Vanek-Roy-Stafford has looked good but at times still tends to get too cute on the power play and on odd-man rushes.
The other lines have been jumbled at times - with Connolly-Hecht-McCormick getting the majority of the second line reps to my best recollection after Pominville's injury. Lindy Ruff has really tried to focus on putting grinders (ie McCormick, Kaleta, Grier) with skill players (ie Ennis, Connolly) as of late to get a balanced system of puck possession and goal scoring. The results, based on how you interpret them, have been varied at best. The Sabres have scored 30 goals in their first 12 games - averaging 2.5 a game. Compare that to last years' squad who scored 2.8 goals/game (for the entire 09-10 season) - the statistics show a drop off.
Rehauling the top of your defensive core could play a big role in the Sabres' woes as well. Shaone Morrrrisssonnnnn (I think that's how it's spelled) and Jordan Leopold in - Hank Tallinder and Toni Lydman out. Any time a team must remove two of the main pieces of your defensive unit there is cause for concern, let alone two players who played in Buffalo for a combined 13 seasons. Tallinder really provided a stabilizing force for Tyler Myers last season, something that I feel as though he has missed while working with Shaone. (i'm not going to spell the last name again, his first name's bad enough) I will admit Leopold has a more offensive presence so far than I had seen out of Lydman or Tallinder - see the goal Leopold scored by attacking the net vs. Atlanta Friday night - and I do look forward to seeing more out of him as the season progresses. For the defense, in one word, I believe there needs to be more cohesion. Honestly, nobody can expect Morrisonn and Leopold to fill the roles that were lost last season right off the bat...it takes time and understanding the system and it's components for players from different teams to come in and feel comfortable - hopefully it will come with time.
Cohesion is best illustrated on the ice when it comes to special teams - and this team has faltered this season there as well. Down over 4% from last year's total, (that was still ranked only 17th in the league then) the Sabres power play has looked disorganized and confused much of the year. Losing a player like Jason Pominville surely does not help the cause - and the addition of Jordan Leopold and the maturation of Tyler Myers was supposed to enduce goal scoring on the back end but since has also faltered. The penalty kill, in addition, has been absolutely dreadful as well. After ranking second in the league by season's end at 86.6% last year, this year's squad is below 75% on the season. No that's not a misread...heading into tonight's game the Sabres penalty kill was at 74.5% - over a 12 percent drop. Sabres fans expect a very strong PK under Lindy Ruff, it is clear that he has the coaching abilities to make it happen in years past. The reason for the drop in the penalty kill is a difficult one to answer, but there is definitely no doubt that this is a huge concern for the Sabres this season to this point.
Of course, all of the play on the ice - all of the gameplanning, the preparing, etc all comes back to the mind of one Lindy Ruff. Could the head coach be the one causing all of this new-founded turmoil? I know this is a very popular viewpoint within the online community - the majority of which have called for Darcy Regier to make a change as soon as possible for a multitude of reasons. Some say he has lost the morale of the players, some say they just don't listen to him anymore, and others believe that the team simply needs a shake up and a change of the guard will do so. I personally disagree but completely understand the logic - inevitably Lindy is the one who must prepare his players to be mentally ready to perform at a highly competitive level. That has not yet been the case in the 2010-2011 season - currently with 8 points in the first 12 games of the season, the team is already 11 points off its pace of last season and 10 from the year prior. When only 9 points separate 7th to 13th place at the end of last year, statistics like the one above show the Sabres' sluggish start is a definite cause for concern.
In saying so, Darcy Regier's head isn't safe from the chopping block either. His methodical, 'self-imposed cap' loving, overly patient demeanor sometimes makes one blogger want to put his head through a wall. The man who originally said 'Rome wasn't built in a day' must have had Darcy's picture up in his office -but in Darcy's defense I commend his ability to always bring a competitive team to the ice with depth to spare and a farm team that's also strong. Quite frankly, being a General Manager on a National Hockey League franchise doesn't seem like an easy job, and for anybody who can withstand the years of changes and turmoil (and the Bud Ice Penguin..err Gary Bettman) the league has gone through, not to mention the Sabres' filing bankruptcy some years back - the man has done a pretty good job. But some fans still point to July 1st 2007 as the day that will define Regier's tenure as the Sabres GM - when Chris Drury and Daniel Briere fled for greener pastures while Regier allegedly had separate opportunities with both players to re-sign them in the beginning of that year. We, as fans, do not know the entire truth and probably never will. All that said, Darcy is the one that gives Lindy the tools he needs to operate at the highest level. Would his dismissal be a breath of fresh air, a spark, or whatever cliche you wish to describe it for the Sabres? You decide.
As i mentioned before, there is no definite answer as to whom is the ultimate culprit of the Sabres' woes heading into November. It is clear that the team as a whole is not anywhere near as productive as it needs to be if their aspirations of making it to the playoffs and beyond are to be fulfilled. But after reading this article who do you place the most blame upon for the initial sputtering of the team? Please vote in the poll I posted and we'll all find out together! Then we can send a letter to Darcy letting him know...maybe. Until then have a happy halloween everybody!