Doomsdayers and naysayers rejoice, for the much-anticipated Buffalo Sabres' season of '11-'12 is almost at an end (mercifully). Note how I said that the Sabres' season is almost over, because there's still lots of hockey to be played, through into June as the playoffs morph into the Stanley Cup finals, where yet again the Queen City shall not be represented. And don't tell me that there's still twenty-six games on the Sabres schedule, because it would take a record of 18-5-3 from here on out to even stand a chance of grabbing that 8th playoff spot with 93 pts.. and this set of players and coaches does not give anyone the warm fuzzies that they can go on that sort of a run.
So what happens next? Keep it here after the jump to find out.
There is a certain segment of the Sabres fan-base that is actually quite thrilled that the Sabres have flamed out like they have, with the dying embers of playoff hopes serving as a rude and stark warning that money will not buy you championships (ask the New York Rangers fans about their debacles of the last decade or so). Mr. Pegula's riches have bought us some horses, and the meadows, made the cart path to the water, and even bought the darned lake, but he can't get the horses to drink. Is it the horses? The stablemen? Both?
I like Terry Pegula's business sense. He has made a fortune in a niche industry like hydrofracking, correctly gauging this nation's dependence on fossil fuels and investing heavily in it, with the resulting mammoth payoff. As has been noted more than a few times, it does appear that the Sabres fan within him has ruled some of the decision-making processes, and this season's debacle will certainly bring him to a rude awakening. His chief right-hand man Ted Black is no chump either - as part of Mario Lemieux's team of executives that turned the Pittsburgh Penguins from pitiable castaways to perennial contenders, Black comes with impressive credentials but might have been too hasty in committing to Lindy Ruff & Darcy Regier.
What I do expect is that there will be a full re-evaluation of this organization, top to bottom, come summer 2012. Pegula & Black have to take a long hard look at how this organization is going to go about ensuring that the Buffalo Sabres sole reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup, and then another one..
At this point it is pretty obvious that just a few tweaks here and there are not going to change this team into a playoff heavyweight. There is something deeply flawed here, like a rotten apple, and it's spreading throughout the bushel. I do not pretend to know enough about the locker room chemistry and who the leading voices are behind closed doors, but the right voices are not speaking up loud enough and/or the loudest voices are not the right ones. The so-called core that has played together over the years and come up from Rochester have now been given ample time to prove themselves, and all they have proven is that they are not championship material. Make no mistake, there are some very good hockey players on this squad, but either they do not fit the system or do not possess the tenacity and leadership required to make their mark among the elite.
With that said, here is what I'd like to see from the Sabres over the next few months, beginning with the period leading up to the trade deadline at the end of the month. As always, feel free to jump in with your ideas and comments.
Do not mortgage the future, yet - since evidently the present generation is not going to lead us to the Holy Grail, it would be criminal to give away any prospects for a rental player for the rest of this season. I hope the management can accept with humility that this season is a wash and we shouldn't be wasting any more resources on it. February is a sellers' month, so any player that can be sold for above asking price needs to be moved. This will have a two-fold benefit - creating cap space going forward, and also more opportunities for prospects, which leads to the next point.
Test the youth - with all the injuries the Sabres had this year, we've had extended looks at a lot of the younger players who should be wearing the blue & gold in the years to come. There is no reason to stop playing them now that rash of injuries is behind us. We might as well find out earlier rather than later who can make it in the big leagues and who cannot - regular season games against teams vying for a playoff spot are a much better examination of ability than training camp and preseason friendlies will afford.
Bring in the big guns - an executive committee needs to be assembled right away. This group is going to analyze where we went wrong this year, how to remedy the situation and what needs to be done for the coming year, as well as lay out the blueprints for at least a five-year plan depending on observations on where the NHL is headed. They will also be charged with deciding if Regier & Ruff merit holding on to their positions, and what is required of them if so. This panel should comprise Pegula, Black, advisors Ken Sawyer & Cliff Benson, a Sabres financial officer, a selection of ex-players still affiliated with the team formally or informally (Perreault, Robert, Gare, Robitaille), a member or two of the scouting team (Kevin Devine, Jon Christiano) and also look to enlist a couple of hockey analysts who could possibly retain their positions as consultants on the management team. If money is indeed not an object then let's have some innovative hockey minds on board, this group needs more hockey mavens and fewer business moguls (or else we might as well have kept on a certain unnamed architect from the previous ownership!).
Define this mysterious 'system' - if indeed Pegula & Black have decided Regier & Ruff are still going to handle the reins to the team, then they need to be more accountable. The GM & coach need to present to the executives a gameplan of what 'system' the Sabres are going to play and what kind of players are required that can fit into the system. This should be reviewed and approved by the executive committee. After which, this group will then determine who on the current roster (prospects included) fits the mold, can learn to fit the mold or is surplus to requirements. The scouting team then needs to compile their list of who in the NHL is a good fit for the system, and forward this list to the front office. This is when the fun begins, especially for fans, as we get to place wagers on our personal wishlists for the players we'd like to see skating out onto the ice at the FN Center.
Throw out the baby, bathwater, washbasin and the towel - however, if the committee decides that Regier and/or Ruff are not the way forward, then pretty much everything at FNC that's not nailed to the floor needs to go. The managing group will then conduct interviews for potential GMs and/or coaches, and placing emphasis on success at the playing level (see Lemieux, Mario & Yzerman, Steve). Enough of passing on the legacy of acceptance that we have gotten used to, there has to be a change in mindset here - if change is to take place then it must be embraced wholeheartedly, not just swapping out one component at a time.The new leadership then determines who stays, who is cut and who is dealt away.
Speaking just for myself, the only way I tolerate another season of futility (or to use the word's fancier cousin - 'rebuilding') is if the above steps are taken in a clear and visible attempt to enforce change, no more status quo. Trust me, I'm not trolling on the Sabres or jumping off the bandwagon or anything - I love the Sabres just as much as you do, but I am not liking what the organization has become, and I know I speak for a decent-sized section of the fans when I say this. Let's hear your thoughts now.