The ’11/12 Buffalo Sabres: A Fan’s Eulogy

Two-thousand words on disappointment, fan emotions, and the status quo.

So this is hockey heaven. It’s been 14 months since Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Sabres and while half of the eastern conference battles in the first round of the playoffs, the Sabres are watching from the sidelines. Pegula rode into town on his white horse and while many fans continue their eternal optimism and hope their team is headed in the right direction, it’s been nothing if not a lost season.

Well maybe that’s not totally true. They have a few good young players and it seems like the charade of “the core” is finally coming to an end with the deadline trade of Paul Gaustad and the inevitable release of Jochen Hecht on July 1st. Simply put, this won’t be the same team Buffalo fans are used to seeing next year. While the main whipping boy is still in town (God, can you imagine how badly Roy must want to leave Buffalo? He has to want to, right?), keep in mind that many of general manager Darcy Regier’s whiffs in the post Drury/Briere era will be out the door. Connolly, Hecht, Gaustad, and maybe even Roy will have turned into Foligno, Ennis, McNabb and Hodgson.

The problem came last week, when we found out via team president Ted Black that both Regier and coach Lindy Ruff will be retained. In the 15 years the pair has been running the Sabres, both Ruff and Regier have had their hits and misses but in the past year alone they’ve proved they just aren’t the men to lead the team to the next step. With a much deeper wallet, Regier jumped right into free agency after years of declaring it a waste of time and money. He addressed the team’s biggest needs, signing Christian Erhoff to a 10 year deal with an absolutely beautiful $4 million annual cap hit and trading spare parts for defensive anchor Robyn Regehr. Erhoff is worth the cap hit because he’s a potential All-Star just entering his prime and his skating style is hypnotizing to watch. To the guy behind me in section 313, notice I said cap hit not money, because who cares how much he gets paid if it doesn’t effect other spending areas? You’re not paying his salary, shut up.  Regehr is the overdue replacement for shot blocking net presence they lost when Jay McKee left via free agency six years ago.

But in what looks more and more like a panic move every day, Regier also signed free agent Ville Leino. It only took about 2 months for the Leino signing to be ridiculed en masse and officially dubbed a mega-bust. Signed as a center to a team that desperately needed one, Leino balked and decided he’d taking his talents to left wing (too bad it’s not South Beach, eh Sabres fans?). Good foresight on his part, Leino eventually scored 8 goals in 71 games.

 

Even with all his new spending power, Regier has again and again gone after soft, overpaid players that other teams couldn’t get rid of fast enough. He picked up Brad Boyes at the deadline during the prior season and Leino was the next logical step after he helped eliminate the Sabres from the playoffs. Regier can’t be trusted with determining yet another Sabres teams’ makeup. He was praised for being able to deal power forward Zach Kassian (an eventual poor man’s Chris Neil by most accounts) to Vancouver at the deadline for top 6 center Cody Hodgson. But when you consider Kassian’s spotty play, attitude issues, and Regier’s willingness to step so far outside of himself and trade a highly touted prospect means Kassian was probably a bad pick at number 13 overall.

I’m going to catch some hate mail for this but many Sabres fans are incredibly difficult to talk to. If we really have one of the most knowledgeable hockey cities in the NHL then fans of teams like Phoenix must constantly wonder which team they’re even rooting for. There’s an arrogance too many Buffalonians have about the sport that clouds their vision of what’s happening on the ice. Watching a game at the First Niagara Center can be equivalent to listening to the sports radio station again or rereading columns from The Buffalo News’ sports section. Fans reiterate what they read and hear so often that at times you have to wonder whether people even watch the sport they claim to know so much about.

After he sold the team to Pegula, previous owner Tom Golisano made it clear that he was most concerned with his bottom line and then with the success of the team by opening the press conference with a complaint about New York State’s taxes. Among fans, it seems that Regier gets a mulligan for losing both of his captains on the same day in 2007. It was a long time ago but it’s still as relevant as it is painful. For all the financial constraints he apparently had, Regier turned down an offer of $5 million per year from then captain Daniel Briere’s agent. Which is curious because he didn’t seem to hesitate the following summer when he doled out a 5-year deal to Jason Pominville worth $26.5 million. Regier being limited in his spending might’ve been a small issue, but in reality he just picked the wrong players. Since then, the Sabres as a team have scored 33 playoff goals. Briere alone has 33 and counting.

While Regier has made his ineptitude obvious, Ruff has somehow managed to stay under the radar and out of the ire of fans. Through the years many have suggested that Regier be fired and the Sabres would be wise to keep Ruff, ignoring the fact that:

A. Being partners with Regier for 15 years, Ruff would’ve had plenty of input on what players to keep and let go

B. Any right thinking general manager would want to bring in their own coach that they share a philosophy with.

To legions of fans in Western New York Ruff walks on water. His brash treatment of the media and quick wit in interviews appeals to our blue collar, Labbatt-drinkin’ town. Combine that with the fact he was a captain of the team he now coaches for three years…and he has that ‘stache:

There’s no better example of fans watching the game with more emotion than brains than Lindy Ruff’s last few years behind the bench. Until the team’s recent struggles questioning Ruff’s genius would’ve been equivalent to not being a fan of chicken wings or wasting a Mighty Taco. His “system” was the solution, Max Afinogenov Tim Connolly Derek Roy the problem. “What’s Lindy supposed to do with these players?” people would ask. It doesn’t work both ways. You can’t ignore the fact he has a hand in the players on the team (maybe the biggest voice in that respect) and decides who plays when, all while making excuses for the players. Derek Roy is a selfish hockey player, fine. Then why does Ruff constantly put him on the ice during the final minutes of tight games?

There should be questions as to why Regier is so loyal to Ruff. Hockey is like no other sport in that one of a coach’s biggest responsibility’s is his team’s mindset. There’s a system (I don’t hate any word more than “system” after listening to this team’s postgame interviews), but they focus on whether the forecheck is a 2-1-2 rather than a book of set plays or elaborate baseball coaches giving signals. The playoff misses and weak first round exits over the past 5 years are proof Ruff has put the wrong ideology into the team. For many of the players, he’s been their only NHL coach. Perennial underachievers Drew Stafford, Thomas Vanek, and Andrej Sekera know where they stand with the coach. From a business standpoint, why would a boss ever want employees who are complacent and paid well?

One of the best lines in hockey this year was Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux between Scott Hartnell and Jaromir Jagr. It’s not a fair comparison to the Sabres because of the sheer talent on that line but at least when they struggled coach Peter Laviolette didn’t break them up after a period. Ruff doesn’t show enough patience in his top lines to keep them together through slumps, even if that slump is only a game. When he keeps one together, it’s newsworthy. Rookie Luke Adam looked to be a solid center between Vanek and Pominville before his play dropped off and he was bounced throughout the lineup. Adam was a rookie and it’s understandable to take him off the top spot but putting him on the 4th line before a demotion to the minors was probably great for his confidence.

The way he treated Adam is just the latest example of Ruff mismanaging young players. With Adam in the minors for most of the 11/12 season and top 6 center Leino buried on the 3rd line wing (despite the fact he’s signed through the 14/15 season), the team was lost at pivot. That was until Tyler Ennis was moved from wing to center out of necessity. It worked great, with Ennis now looking like the team’s number one center going into next season. It’s curious that it took so long as Ennis played center throughout his entire career until he started playing for Buffalo. They seem to have stumbled into something that should’ve been clear for years. Marcus Foligno, who carried the team on his back throughout the last ten or so games, was a rookie who was called up on an emergency basis. He not only made the veterans on the team look bad, his 13 points in 14 games exposed the fact that both Ruff and Regier were too slow to recognize his potential.

 

In 07/08 Drew Stafford scored 38 points in 64 games and the following year he had 45 in 79. You’d expect a strong skating winger with a scoring touch to further his development after 2 strong seasons but instead Stafford has stalled and 3 years later he scored 50 points in 80 games during the 11/12 season. Almost exactly the same player he was three years ago. Vanek has stronger numbers but his play has also underwhelmed fans who have expected him to be a dominant force after watching him during his first few seasons in the blue and gold. Tyler Myers, who many still expect to be a Norris Trophy winner, averaged .59 points per game en route to winning a Calder trophy but he followed it with a season where he averaged .46 PPG then .42 this past season. Regier has made mistakes but these three players were considered to have a huge upside when they began their careers as Sabres. Instead, under Ruff, they’ve gotten worse. There’s no reason fans shouldn’t expect the same from Ennis, Foligno, and Cody Hodgson.

The myth of Ryan Miller is also a concept that seems to not only have swept Sabres-nation, but the team’s front office as well. He was drafted in the 5th round of the 1999 draft and has since emerged as a franchise goalie in a league where goalies are nearly impossible to find. He’s won a Vezina Trophy, but his numbers aren’t out of this world. Miller lands at 42nd on the list of all time goals against average. Coincidentally, that’s one spot above former backup Patrick Lalime and two spots above old buddy Martin Biron. Statistically his numbers are behind Jonas Hiller, Roberto Luongo, Illya Bryzgalov, and far behind elite goaltenders like Pekka Rinne of Nashville and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. He’s one of the better goalies in the NHL, but he’s not the best. He had a great year, true, but since then his numbers have been just above average and barely better than backup Jonas Enroth, who has a propensity for winning big games despite being the latest of Sabres’ backup goalies to be buried on the bench by Lindy Ruff. Miller’s actions after he was sent spinning by Lucic and his comments after the Gaustad trade have been called by outside media as a plea for being traded.

Finishing the season in 9th place was an appropriate finish for the Buffalo Sabres. They were a streaky team with confidence issues that don’t seem like they’ll be addressed during the offseason. The team has 4 picks in the top 50 of what apparently is a deep draft. Unfortunately fans will still be waiting for the hockey heaven that always seems to be coming up next year.

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