Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Turning Point
It was Saturday Morning on November 12th and the NHL season was still going through the puberty phase, where some teams reach it earlier and fly out to a fast start, and some teams take a little longer to reach their goals.
It was a warm evening that night in Boston, where the temperature were hovering around a balmy 50 degrees by face-off, definitely a warm number for Boston in November, much less September.
The action inside the TD Garden was going to reflect the warmer temperatures outside as well.
The Buffalo Sabres, winners of 4 straight and a team with high expectations based on the actions of new owner Terry Pegula, and sitting 1 point behind the surprising Toronto Maple Leafs in 2nd place with a 10-5-0 record, rolled into town to play the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, who were also on a 4 game winning streak, appearing to have completely shaken off the Stanley Cup hangover that plagued this team in October.
The game started off on the right foot for the Sabres, as Thomas Vanek scored his 11th at the 5:38 mark of the 1st period. This game had that look, a preview of what could come in the future, maybe a Eastern Conference Finals preview?
Then, the roof caved in, compliments of one play.
Milan Lucic took a 'run' at Ryan Miller on a breakaway attempt in the 1st period, and while Miller stayed in the game, you can tell something just wasn't right. Miller did make 19 saves in the 2nd, but the Bruins scored the next 3 goals of the game in a 22 shot onslaught in the 2nd period. And to start the 3rd period, enter in Jhonas Enroth, who gave up another three goals and the Bruins routed the Sabres 6-2.
At the time, Miller had what was described as a sore neck. Turns out it was a concussion and Miller once again would miss an extended period of time.
What was more stunning about this incident (besides other hockey fans calling Sabres fans whiners, as if they wouldn't react the same way), was the lack of retaliation by the Buffalo Sabres. What kind of message did this send throughout the locker room? I bet not a good one, especially with Miller, who is viewed as a team leader. And maybe that was one of the warning signs of this team: A goalie generally should not be viewed as one of the leaders of any hockey team.
The implications of this event at TD Garden? Lets examine the numbers:
Before Lucic On Miller:
Buffalo: 10-5-0 20 points +13 goal differential
Boston: 7-7-0 14 points +13 goal differential
After Lucic On Miller:
Buffalo: 8-14-5 21 points, -29 goal differential
Boston: 20-4-1 41 points, +57 goal differential.
Wow. Just wow.
Is this the sole reason the Sabres have fallen to the depths of the Eastern Conference? One never can know. Sure, the Buffalo Sabres have had their share of injuries, just pointing to this as the SOLE reason for the demise is a cop-out, much like NHL fans who moan about a lack of effort and caring being the reason for losing. It starts with talent, mixed in with staying injury free, effort, etc.
Harping on these excuses just turns one away from the truth: Maybe the Buffalo Sabres as currently constructed, just are not a good hockey team, and that very much looks to be the case. As a fan of this team for over 30 years, the idea of getting hot, sneaking into the playoffs, and losing a tough 1st round series just does not excite me as a fan. That act is old and tired in Western New York and that should be a thought from the past.
Remember Pegula's "Our whole reason for existence is to win the Stanley Cup" mission statement? I do, and want that thought to stick for good.
At this point, I would support bottoming out the roster, selling at the deadline, playing some of the younger players on this roster, and analyze for 2012 and beyond. Why do I say that? When you lose to the lowly Carolina Hurricanes, give up a GWG to the likes of Johnny Oduya and the Winnipeg Jets at home, and have a lifeless performance at Toronto and get shutout by The Monster, that is a sign that this is just not the year.
I am sure this is not a popular thought amongst Sabres fans, but is this team really ready to compete with the likes of the Boston Bruins?
Not a chance.
Below we will start a series on How to Fix the Buffalo Sabres, here goes the maiden voyage:
How To Fix The Sabres Version 1.0:
Let's analyze this from the top: Owner Terry Pegula has arrived on the scene with tremendous fan-fare and for good reason: He clearly wants to win, and appears to be ready to do whatever it takes. But this alone, is never enough. Was he too eager when dishing out huge contracts to Ville Leino (who had 1 good playoff run, notably against Buffalo which probably blinded Darcy Regier from reality when assessing Leino) and Christian Ehrhoff (the never ending 4 million dollar cap hit)? Perhaps he was. But trying is better then the alternative that was generally the norm in Buffalo for many of-seasons. Only fear I have ever had about Pegula is that he is too aggressive, look at owners like Jerry Jones in the NFL, sometimes caring too much as an owner can be an issue, a delicate balance must be found.
Looking over the Sabres roster, I see a lot of B+ to C players and not one 'A' type player. Tomas Vanek is a excellent sniper, capable of getting hot for stretches, and has become much more responsible defensively, but as the #1 go-to option? Yes he is the 19th leading scorer on NHL.com as of this article, but Vanek needs help, another star is needed on this roster.
Tyler Myers was expected to be the other star on this roster was out for a few weeks, but he needs to stay healthy and be more of a consistent force on the blue line. Can Myers, Ehrhoff and Jordan Leopold all exist together? Did Ehrhoff's arrival upset the chemistry of the defensive pairings? More time to me is needed for this group to gel, but something needs to change, and fast, to turn around this dreadful season.
Looking at trade possibilities, the Anaheim Ducks are rumored to be making just about everyone available. If I am Darcy Regier, I am placing a call to the Ducks to inquire about Ryan Getzlaf. This team is in dire need of a #1 center, and while Getzlaf is not a elite center, he is absolutely a #1 center that would fit nicely with Vanek on the top line. In addition, his effect would trickle down to the 2nd and 3rd lines, take some pressure of Leino, Drew Stafford, and others who got big paydays and allow them to just be who Pegula is paying them to be.
Version 1.0 of How To Fix The Sabres is just the beginning, look for more thoughts/trade ideas going forward. And please feel free to fire back at me about my thoughts, offer other ideas, always love to hear back from you!