Sabres Six-Pack: Thoughts On Lindy Ruff’s Squad

40 games deep into an 82-game NHL regular season, the Buffalo Sabres sit in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, 5 points back of the final playoff spot. While trailing by any amount makes for a severe disappointment relative to the club’s expectations going into the year, all is not necessarily lost.

Consider this: how many times has Buffalo let all-too-winnable games slip through their grasp this season? It is easily double-digits. From the home opener vs. the Hurricanes, to the Boston brawl game, to the Columbus embarrassment, to weak home losses to Phoenix and the Islanders, to the blown 3-goal lead vs. Philly, to each of the Ottawa defeats, to last night in Carolina, it has been truly mortifying.

The way this team has performed thus far it does not DESERVE to be in the playoffs, yet here they sit in early January having lost nearly 200 man-games to injury already with over half the schedule remaining, and they are a short little win streak away from getting in? Imagine if they had shown up for even half of those atrocities, they would be golden. Of course, you can not dwell on the past too much either so let’s just take it for what it is and move forward. Here are half-a-dozen item to chew on:

Ryan Miller is not the problem, Jhonas Enroth is not the solution

Ok, I’ll admit it. I was wrong about #30 in September. He has not played up to the Vezina Trophy-winning standard that I suggested he would play to and that fans in Western New York have come to expect from him. Not even close, actually. He has been quite average, but he is not the cause of this team’s struggles. Benching Miller in favor of Jhonas Enroth is not going to make this team suddenly wake up.

Take a look at the offensive output from the Sabres in their thirteen most recent losses in order from most recent to least recent in front of both goaltenders:

  • 2 goals (vs. CAR)
  • 2 goals (vs. OTT)
  • 1 goals (vs. WSH)
  • 1 goals (vs. NJD)
  • 2 goals (vs. TOR)
  • 1 goals (vs. OTT)
  • 3 goals (vs. PIT)
  • 2 goals (vs. OTT)
  • 1 goals (vs. NYR)
  • 4 goals (vs. PHI)
  • 1 goals (vs. DET)
  • 1 goals (vs. NYI)
  • 1 goals (vs. CBJ)

Those stats essentially sum up everything to a tee. With the exception of the 3 goals in Pittsburgh (two of which came in garbage time during an 8-3 trouncing) and the aforementioned collapse vs. the Flyers, this team has not scored more than 2 goals in any of those losses. So what then, is the team expecting a shutout on a regular basis from the netminder in order to win all of those ones? Sure, once in awhile it is a pleasant surprise to steal a game and post a goose egg, but let’s focus on the realistic “should-wins” that they are losing instead of worrying about the “would have been sweet” upsets that are not coming through.

Now, do not mistake this as me claiming Miller to be a Saint. He needs to be better. I am expressing that regardless of who is in net for this team lately, it is not the cause for the lack of production. Let Miller be. That being said, I think I’m reaching the point where I am actually alright with potentially trading the East Lansing, Michigan man if the take-back is significant firepower up front. I am not pushing for it, but I am not against it either.

Appreciate Those Acquired With Pegula’s $$$

I have seen plenty of non-sense thrown around attempting to criticize and condemn the roster maneuvering committed by GM Darcy Regier this Summer with Terry Pegula’s blessing. This is ridiculous. Here is my analysis on each of the ‘Big 3′ brought in over the off-season:

Robyn Regehr was not acquired to have his name regularly appear on the score-sheet – he came to Buffalo to be a responsible veteran force providing much-needed grit on the back-end. He has been exactly that. And remember, they gave up Paul Byron & Chris Butler to get him. Regehr is a rock.

The Christian Ehrhoff signing was scrutinized excruciatingly by the media due to the fact that he is making $10 million this season. So…? He’s only a $4 million cap hit – that’s good value! His defensive-zone play could use some improvement, but do remember that he is an offensive defenseman, and as such is going to have the occasional lapse in his own end. His recent injury is extremely unfortunate, but if the Sabres can survive without him, his return should be monumental.

That leaves Leino. Ville has not been a superstar and he has not been a first-line centre. But oh that’s right, he has never been a superstar and has never been a first-line centre. I never expected him to be. He has taken some time finding his game and adjusting to the Buffalo style of play this season but there is definitely a place for him in this line-up. Leino is a savvy playmaker who quite frankly should not be judged until after the playoffs (should they get there). That is when he historically has performed to his highest level and is when the Sabres will need him most.

Centre of Attention I: Boyes, Boyes, Boyes

See if you can find a pattern here:

Drew Stafford scored 31 goals last year.

Derek Roy suffered a season-ending injury on December 23rd last year.

Drew Stafford scored four hat tricks from Dec. 15th to Feb. 13th last year.

Derek Roy has been Drew Stafford’s centre the whole year.

Drew Stafford has a meagre 7 goals this year.

Derek Roy was not Drew Stafford’s centre last year.

Umm, just throwing it out there, but maybe they are not the best fit together? You know what has looked like a good combo in the short time it has been on the ice this year? Drew Stafford and… Brad Boyes.

When the Sabres dealt for Boyes at the 2011 Trade Deadline, it was with the promise that he would be the centre that the team desperately was seeking (and still is). Instead, Boyes now finds himself as a winger on a smorgasbord of various Ruff line combinations that fluctuate on any given night.

Why not pair Boyes and Stafford (whose games complement one another very well in my opinion) with someone speedy like Tyler Ennis or Nathan Gerbe and see what happens? Even someone such as Leino perhaps could gel with the two of them! Roy-Stafford just does not work. Try something else please. With #9 suffering an upper-body injury last night, it appears that fans are about to see just what that looks like.

Centre of Attention II: Luuuuuuuke Adam

I’ll make this one quick. Luke Adam started the year between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville to a great amount of success. He has since seen less ice-time per game and is inexplicably playing left-wing on a team that could not have a more pressing need for quality players up the middle.

I just want to know why. Perhaps he does not want to play centre and feels more comfortable on the wall. If that is the case, so be it… but why has more not been made of this change? It seemingly just “happened” and has been swept under the rug. More on this in the next section, kind of.

Two Nickels Do Not Equal A Dime

One excuse for Buffalo’s poor play this season is that it has been decimated by injuries. I can not argue that not having key figures like Tyler Myers, Ryan Miller, or Christian Ehrhoff on the ice makes a major difference. It does. It’s the “four or five regulars are out…” aspect that needs to be further acknowledged. The counter to this excuse is that while yes, there are often four or five regular players in the press box, there are four or five regulars in the press box at First Niagara Centre whether or not injuries exist.

There are way too many “secondary scoring” players on this team. There is not enough room for all of them to be active regardless of if any of them are hurt. Assuming Vanek, Pominville, Stafford, Roy, and Leino are automatics based on contracts, a healthy roster would mean that Gerbe, Ennis, Hecht, Gaustad, Kaleta, Adam, McCormick, Ellis, Boyes (9 players) must fit into 7 spots. That’s not accounting for the Rochester crew (Tropp, Kassian, etc.) who are bidding for NHL shifts. Call me crazy, but I would like for Zack Kassian to be up with this team permanently following his next recall.

Rarely do two nickels equal a dime when it comes to trades in professional sports.

Understandably so, but perhaps three or four could?

Connecting back to what I said above, as much as I like the guy, I am advocating that Derek Roy should be the first major trade chip that Darcy throws on the table in any potential deal. The organization is well-stocked with desirable young talent, too. Gragnani, Foligno, Armia, Pysyk, and Tropp are among a number of top prospects that despite having high expectations for, I would part with in a second if a combination of a couple of them, a few draft picks, and some talent from the active roster were to result in the acquisition of a Getzlaf or a Stastny. You only have so many spots in the line-up. The Sabres need a centre. Overpay if need be, it makes sense to.

They Don’t Ask How, They Ask How Many

In closing, be sure to remember this: it does not matter which position you enter the playoffs from, so long as you do indeed reach the playoffs. Lindy Ruff has made it no secret in the past that he actually prefers starting a series as the visiting team. It’s tough to argue with his opinion on that. The pressure is immediately placed heavily on the side of the ‘favorite’ in the series and all you have to do is win one of the initial two games to head home carrying both momentum in the series and home-ice advantage from that point on.

While it would have been cool to stroll through the schedule, that is not the Buffalo way. Besides, it is simply more fun to enter as an under-dog and emerge victorious with a “nobody believes in us” mantra than it is to find a target placed squarely on your chest ahead of every battle.

Ooh Ahh, Sabres on the Warpath…

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