Watching the Buffalo Sabres has been a depressing slog of pointless wandering in a frozen hell that has repeated itself night after night for nearly a decade. This season has been a special brand of torturous performance thanks to equal parts bad luck and poor use of tools. What it has also been is a reminder of errors of the not-too-distant past both inside and outside of Buffalo.
The scoring slumps of Taylor Hall, Jack Eichel, and Jeff Skinner bring back thoughts of days when Thomas Vanek would pass more often than he would shoot. It doesn’t quite make you recall Ville Leino’s days of never shooting the puck, but the lack of points is enough to bring back the specter of failure.
What hurts is the Sabres need the offense and each of Eichel, Hall, and Skinner have produced the scoring chances you want from players of that ilk. The cruel twist being that so few of those chances have resulted in goals it’s caused the cacophony of voices claiming that those players stink to grow louder.
“Make Seattle pick Skinner!”
These are nonsense notions to anyone outside of the range of the lingering stench of rotten puck in Erie County, but the sense of hopelessness and the endless string of losses wreaks chaos on the collective psyche.
In any other situation this would be the breaking point. In Buffalo, it’s another season destined to end on time without a postseason bid. In any other situation this would lead to the coach being sent to the unemployment line. Hell, in past Sabres seasons that’s what would happen. But this one is a special kind of bad.
Regression Under Krueger
The cries for what to do to the players have settled down now that Eichel is hurt, Skinner finally scored a goal, and Hall found some chemistry with Dylan Cozens and Sam Reinhart with Eichel out, but the shouts to fire coach Ralph Krueger have grown louder with each loss and it’s all justified, of course... and predictable.
For every positive thing that has come from Krueger’s tenure in Buffalo (the improvement of Jake McCabe, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Curtis Lazar) there are twice as many reasons why things have gone in the wrong direction. The wins are fewer, Victor Olofsson’s growth has stalled, Rasmus Dahlin’s play has gone in the opposite direction anyone wants from a No. 1 pick. Krueger went out of his way last season to make sure the Sabres didn’t become reliant on just one line to get offense. Now that the Sabres aren’t getting any offensive or defensive results from their depth lines, that’s what they’ve become. It’s a stark reminder of how things stalled out under former coach Phil Housley when if the Skinner-Eichel-Reinhart line didn’t score, they were toast.
The lack of direction on defense is a huge disappointment and a drastic change from last season when the team’s defensive play was one of the reasons to have hope for this season. At times, the defensive zone coverage bore similarities to how the unit ran under Housley that saw blue liners calling out locations while the opponents cycled around them. It also often left defensemen alone trying to fend off multiple attackers at a time.
Other times players look like they’ve been told to hold their position and not to deviate away from it or else they’ll get a long-term seat on the bench. Looking stoic might be something honorable to do in real life, but on the ice unresponsive to what’s going on around you? That’s the stuff of the Ron Rolston era.
There’s also the matter of body language on the ice. Trying hard and losing tight games will happen to the best and worst of teams. Looking as if you’re not trying and getting housed… that makes everyone mad. That makes everyone think of how Dan Bylsma’s tenure crumbled underneath him after he managed to get on the locker room’s bad side.
These moments have all been present during this incredible slide to the bottom of the NHL standings. The Sabres have yet to reach the midpoint of the NHL season and they’re an eternity away from a playoff position. Wild things can happen in any season, granted every season isn’t like this one where your only opponents come from within the division.
But even the St. Louis Blues who sat near the bottom of the NHL the season they won the Stanley Cup had to make a coaching change (and ride a hot goalie) to do it. Linus Ullmark won’t be back for a few more weeks and Jonas Johansson and Carter Hutton haven’t shown they’ve got some of that Jordan Binnington fortune to them and Krueger hasn’t had a touch like Craig Berube.
If everything like this holds until the end of the season, asking fans to re-up the mantra of, “there’s always next season” will ring as empty as KeyBank Center has been and will be when it reopens to fans next week.