The sinking Sabres (19-24-5) are currently tied with the Carolina Hurricanes (17-24-9) at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with 43-points, but if the Hurricanes can snag at least a point at home against Winnipeg Monday, the idle Sabres will be dwelling alone in the basement of the East.
With a current 5-game losing streak compounded by an abysmal 2-7-1 record in their last 10-games, the Sabres have to be feeling the pressure of an entire city pressing on their backs.
It can be almost maddening to watch this team struggle with consistency up-and-down the lineup. It seems like they just can’t put a full 60-minutes of hockey together. “It’s been a lack of discipline in different areas that’s just hurt us,” Head Coach, Lindy Ruff said, following Saturday’s loss to St. Louis.
During the loss in Chicago, Wednesday, one of the NBC broadcasters commented on the Sabres bench demeanor when the team went down by two in the second period; their bench looked like it was full of “1,000-mile stares.” That statement seems to be how this team has reacted in the face of adversity all season long.
When the offense is clicking, which it has done sparingly, the defense is soft. When the defense plays strong, weak goals break their back. There is no accountability to pick each other up when a mistake is made or the bounces don’t go their way.
No other stat better exemplifies the overall team struggles as the goals-for/goals-against differential where the Sabres are tied with Tampa Bay, another surprisingly underachieving club for a conference worst minus-31.
Another factor that has contributed greatly to the Sabres problems is the inherent lack of intensity in the defensive zone. Not just the defensemen, but the forwards as well.
When the opponent is on the attack, the Sabres have been repeatedly guilty of one of the worst habits a team can undertake defensively – puck watching.
‘Puck watching’ is an unofficial hockey term, but it occurs when a player or players become distracted from their individual responsibilities by focusing on the movement of the puck rather than maintaining a simple focus on their defensive assignment.
When a player gets caught puck watching, his assignment can sneak to the back door for a quick tap-in pass, bang home the rebound uncontested by a defender or get into high traffic, scoring areas of the ice unhindered by a defenders body or a stick check.
More times than not, those plays that could have been simply avoided by maintaining an individual emphasis on the defensive assignment, end up in the back of the net and are accompanied by 19 1,000-mile stares. “We’ve got to get some confidence back,” said, Ryan Miller “Hockey is mistakes and bounces, they go your way too, you just have to put the work in to deserve those bounces.”
On the bright side, bearing down in the defensive zone is an easily fixable problem, but getting the entire team back healthy and on the same page is another task entirely.
As the losses continue to mount and the Sabres collective grip on the stick tightens, this season seems more and more like a lost one.
A team that once represented hope at the season’s origin has spiraled out of control into the abyss of the Eastern Conference and there seems to be no rebound in sight.
As the February 27, 2012 NHL trade deadline nears, the current status of the franchise has the team looking more like sellers than buyers, barring an epic turnaround over the 14-games left before the 3:00 p.m. cut off.
Who might the Sabres look to move to improve for the future, or more importantly, who might other teams want to take off the Sabres hands and at what price?
According to capgeek.com with a long-term injury reserve credit to their payroll, the Sabres are right at the $64.3-million NHL salary cap.
The main focus of GM Darcy Regier should be trimming underachieving players from the payroll and stocking draft picks and prospects for the future.
Many Sabres fans would love to see Drew Stafford and Derek Roy take their Jekyll and Hyde act elsewhere, but with their respective $4-million cap hits they will be tough to sell to other teams as top-6 forwards.
As awkward as it sounds, the Sabres are thin on defense where the injuries have mounted, despite having 10-defensemen listed on the roster. If the Sabres blue line was healthy, it would be a no-brainer to try and move some of the NHL ready talent from the backend. Without Regher, Ehrhoff and McNabb, the Sabres find themselves mixing and matching the backend more nights than not.
Andrej Sekera, restricted free-agent to be Marc-Andre Gragnani and Jordan Leopold seem like the most attractive options for other teams looking to add an offensively talented defenseman for the playoff push, without taking on a ridiculous salary requirement, but at this point the Sabres rely on these three guys night-in and night-out to play significant minutes.
Another contingency of fans would like to see goaltender Ryan Miller sent on his merry way, but again at a cap hit of $6.25-million, an underachieving Miller would be tough to get value on his potential.
There have also been rumblings from around the league that Regier has pigeon-holed himself as impossible to deal with, because he unreasonably overvalues the players he has drafted and apparently won’t return phone calls of inquiring GM’s.
The good news is there are two teams, Edmonton (17-26-4) and Columbus (13-28-6) in the Western Conference who have worse records than the Sabres, so at least they aren’t the worst team in the entire league.
Then again, if the Sabres are to continue their losing ways, maybe stocking up tickets to put in for the first pick in the 2012 NHL Draft lottery should be the focus from here on out.