Playoffs-calibre Toughness

Should the Buffalo Sabres have had a season-ending press conference or not? More than the fans, it seems a certain section of the media that covers Buffalo sports is having all sorts of sleepless nights that they didn't have a field day at taking potshots at the Sabres' management (read Darcy Regier & Lindy Ruff) after sharpening their pens all season long. Didn't you hear, the pen is mightier than the sabre?

The Sabres are a privately-owned organization and by the letter of the law have no responsibility (possibly moral) to explain their actions or to wash their laundry in public for a collective hand-wringing to absolve all responsible parties for the benefit of fans across Western New York, Southern Ontario and anywhere else. It was quite strange though that the press was let loose upon every single player that donned the Sabres jersey on locker-cleanout day and no management was present.

In the end, Sabres president Ted Black ended up choosing WGR 550 as his medium of sending a message to the ticket-buying masses, pointedly circumventing the above-mentioned section of the media. Check the Howard Simon audio vault for the interview, and you can read the summary here. One of the things that Black said in the interview that was very interesting and the timing was eerily prescient of some of the playoff action seen across the playoffs this weekend. Keep it here after the jump for more.

Quoting from the piece Andy wrote here on Die By The Blade, Black observed that

"We need to be a tougher team to play against. I’m sure that’s one of Darcy’s action items in the off season."

On a weekend where the Philadelphia Flyers against Pittsburgh Penguins racked up 158 penalty minutes (in one game!), New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators had 54 PIM, questionable hitting and after-the-whistle activities have been the order of the day, most Sabres fans have been wondering how the team would have coped with that level of intensity had they made the playoffs. Let's not get into a discussion about the abysmal manner in which on-ice and supplementary discipline is being handled by the NHL, because the internet is not big enough to deal with that conversation.

Almost every year when the Sabres either fail to make the playoffs or after they are knocked out, we watch with unbridled envy at how tough the teams still alive play, and wish the Sabres would be that scary. Usually it's the never-say-die spirit and willingness to get into the dirty areas that we desire the most. The Sabres showed some desperation the last two seasons as they made playoff pushes, but there's more to toughness than just that.

When faced with the kind of game the Flyers are playing, we need the Sabres to show the smarts to not get suckered in and completely lose all semblance of their gameplan like the Penguins have. That comes from team leadership, where the veterans grab a hold of the younger players and tell them to focus. Reactions like Sidney Crosby's petulance do the team no good, hence the 0-3 hole the Pens find themselves in. Similarly, after Dustin Brown's hit on Henrik Sedin in the Vancouver Canucks - Los Angeles Kings series, the Canucks were so busy looking for retribution during the game for a legal play that they lost their focus and ended up losing the game, and are facing a hasty elimination now - remember, no President's Trophy winner has ever been swept in the first round.

The Boston Bruins showed plenty of bite, most of it borderline illegal, in their Cup run last season, and seemed to have found that again after a pretty docile first pair of games. The Flyers are playing similar hockey too. Both teams have young, skilled players and have found the right combination of grit and experience to support the skill aspect.

Black is right - we do need that top line center who will be on ice during clutch situations in the game, but there is a glaring need for toughness in this team. Surprisingly, it has often been seen that just changing a couple of components ends up having the net effect of changing the entire team's outlook. The Sabres do not need the entire team overhauled - from a personal standpoint, I fully believe that players like Tyler Myers, Marcus Foligno, Brayden McNabb and Corey Tropp are the next core and with the right guidance will be tough enough to go deep in the playoffs. Also, injuries will happen, and there has to be enough squad depth that a couple of injuries should not change how the team looks and plays.

The task facing the top brass is weeding out what elements currently on the squad are not the best influences for the next core, and identifying the right players that will come in and provide that mix. The glory days of the post-lockout seasons are gone when speed and flair ruled the day.. we have returned to the deep, dark ages and winning will come at a heavy physical and mental price, that all the players hoping to drink from the hallowed chalice must be determined to pay, no exceptions.