We’re just about at the halfway point, and the Sabres are barely gasping for air at 18-17-4 on the season. Their 40 points put them four points out of eighth place. That’s certainly within reach, but keep in mind the team has not won back to back games since November 11th, almost two months ago. After lofty expectations to start the year, it’s been a frustrating season for fans of the team. Now almost like a cruel joke, the majority of fans within the Buffalo market can’t even watch the Sabres’ games on MSG. Well, once you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up.
But that’s the real problem. This team hasn’t yet hit rock bottom. They’ve just been stuck in mediocrity ever since their President’s Cup winning season in 2006-2007. I can’t really blame the players as much as I would like to, since we’ve been asked to overvalue players who just aren’t really that talented. I can’t really even blame the previous administration, since Darcy Regier managed to stay on board when Terry Pegula purchased the team. Regier was in charge when the team failed to retain Danny Briere and Chris Drury, and countered by overpaying Derek Roy and Jason Pominville, and later Drew Stafford. He was in charge this summer when Pegula gave him free reign to break the bank in free agency. His response was to use almost every penny of available cap space, putting the Sabres in a tough spot to make moves at the trade deadline this season.
Sure, Regier has made some good moves throughout the years. Vanek’s contract has been a bargain for the most part. The Regehr trade this offseason was a great move. The farm system has been successful under his watch as well. The problem is, for whatever reason, the product on the ice just isn’t cutting it. That would bring us to his partner in crime, the second half of the longest tenured duo in professional sports, head coach Lindy Ruff. Lindy was the perfect man for the job in the early days of the post-lockout NHL. His high flying system found ways to exploit the new rules, and the success on the ice was almost immediate. The problem was, it didn’t work to make consistent deep runs in the playoffs. In the end, you needed physical play to match up with the big dogs. On top of this, the lack of fundamental defensive skills exhibited on the ice this season has been alarming. That’s on the coach.
Jeremy White on WGR said it best – the team is just stale. There’s been too big of a safety net hanging under them for too long. It’s starting to feel like the end of an era around the First Niagara Center these days. New owner, new name on the arena, new renovations…..same core group of players. The fact that those same players don’t seem to be responding to the pressure of having to win now is a testament to what they’ve been all along – stale. We get the same stale play, same stale responses to questions in the locker room, and same stale attitude on the ice.
All of this has caused the fans to become indifferent. The arena was dead on Tuesday night. Remember when I complained about the atmosphere a few weeks ago? That was nothing compared to the other night. At one point I heard an Oilers fan turn to his friend and say, "This is the quietest arena I’ve ever been in." That Oilers fan was two rows away from me. Many media members made that same point on Twitter last night. The play of the team has been so dull and unexciting that it’s causing us to lose our distinction of being one of the better fan bases in the NHL.
When this team started to hit the skids in late November, we all hoped it was just a road bump. We all thought we could just blame in on injuries. Sure, the injury bug has hit us hard, but every team has to deal with that. Sidney Crosby has only played in eight games this year and the Penguins are still in fifth place.
This year is beginning to feel eerily similar to last, but there are no promises of a run at the end to boost the team into the playoffs. Even if that happens, barely sneaking into the postseason and then ceremoniously losing in the first round isn’t going to cut it. The clock is ticking on this team, from the players, to the coach, to straight on up to the front office. Terry Pegula can support them in the media all he wants, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll sit back and watch his new investment wallow in their own sorrows every night without taking action this coming offseason.
The time to win is now, and Tuesday night’s win should be used as a spring board. The next five games can be considered an extremely important stretch. The Sabres play two games against Toronto, and one against Winnipeg, the two teams directly above them in the standings. They also play Carolina and the Islanders, the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference. There’s still time to salvage this season and make a run, and putting together a winning streak to get the fans back in the mix would be a good way to start. The return of Ville Leino, Tyler Ennis, and Tyler Myers should hopefully provide a spark as well. The question is, does this group have another run in them? Or are they already resigned to the fact that this is their farewell tour?