Great expectations led to a greater letdown
*This is the first part of my season recap and review for the Sabres. In the coming days and weeks I will have further reviews of the team and season, player-by-player grades and offer some thoughts on Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier. I will provide a full schedule of posts coming soon.*
The bottom line with regard to this season is that the Sabres didn’t meet their goal. Ignore the goodwill created by their late push or even the 10-5 start they enjoyed in the fall. Of course, that means you need to ignore the mid-season slump as well. Lump it all together and accept the failure to make the playoffs. Sure, you can review and discuss the different portions of this schizophrenic season, but just understand that everything adds up to the end result.
Obviously there were plenty of factors that conspired to keep the Sabres from the postseason. Injuries played a part, along with the arguments of a mentally fragile team, coaching issues and under-performing players. There wasn’t one single factor that stood out to me as the primary reason the Sabres struggled so mightily. However, some stand out more than others.
There is no ignoring the Milan Lucic incident as the tipping point for this year. Lucic isn’t the reason the Sabres missed the playoffs, but his actions certainly started the snowball down the mountain. First off, the injury that Ryan Miller suffered set him back nearly three months. His play was strong early in the year, regressed some in late October and didn’t fully recover until late January. Not having Miller for all of November and December had a terrible effect on the roster.
Looking at Miller individually, his numbers suffered so much in that span that his stellar play late in the year only brought him back to the pack, rather that elevating him to an elite level. Jerry Sullivan would have you believe that Miller let the team down and was sub-par this season. That is to be expected from a guy who probably wasn’t at more than a handful of games all year.
What truly cost the Sabres this season was the inability of their core players to show up when it mattered. Whether that was the loss to Philadelphia or the woes they suffered through in November and December. Too few players contributed on a regular basis while others coasted by and did little.
This is where the crux of the injury excuse lies and where I say to ignore that argument. Yes injuries took away key players for key periods of time. Most of those players were defensemen and that likely changed the approach for Lindy Ruff. However, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Ville Leino and Brad Boyes weren’t on the shelf that entire time – Boyes and Leino did miss some time with injury. Those players were held silent for nearly the entire year while Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek did a majority of the scoring. The ineffective play of forwards who were expected to contribute was a much bigger issue than those who were injured.
Now, some of the blame probably lies with the coaching staff and some lies with the players. Exactly who should be more responsible is a mystery. There is no way to quantify who needed to do more. What you can say is that both parties failed to do their jobs properly and need to answer for it.
Give credit to Lindy Ruff for managing to find chemistry with Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno. Putting Andrej Sekera with Robyn Regehr was a stroke of genius for a long period of time. However, Ruff also ran Miller into the ground (yet again), failed to ever find more than one consistent scoring line and badly misused a number of his forwards.
Add in that the Sabres managed to waste away a number of points with blown leads at various points of the season. The loss to Colorado stands out the most with the tying goal being scored with just seconds left. But failing to hold the lead against Philly and Boston earlier in the year and soft efforts in games where they lost narrow efforts could have easily been enough to put the Sabres in the playoffs.
Another nice piece of reporting done by Jerry Sullivan said that Ruff and Regier were responsible for trying to jigsaw Leino and Boyes in as centers. Only Leino was expected to play center. Boyes was brought here as a winger and was only moved to center because of injuries (last year) and his linemates (this year). Brad Boyes was never sold as a center by the Sabres; he was put there out of necessity.
Boyes was, however, poorly used for a majority of his tenure. A scoring winger, he lit things up for a while upon arriving here. Of course the goals dried up and he was very average for nearly this entire season. However, lay blame with Ruff for stuffing him on the fourth line alongside Matt Ellis, Pat Kaleta, Cody McCormick and others. There is no excuse for Boyes’ regression, but he certainly wasn’t given much of a chance to succeed. Leino has less forgiveness because he did play with talented forwards. However, he spent a majority of his first three months bouncing around the roster and struggled to develop chemistry with anyone. He found success here and there but never settled in. It was a lost season for a player with a huge cap hit and big expectations.
There needs to be some serious evaluations done at all levels by the Sabres in order to take the next step forward in Terry Pegula’s goal of winning the Stanley Cup. Whether the players or management are the group to be broken apart remains to be seen; either way it should be a busy summer.