Few expected the Sabres to be in this sort of hole at the halfway point of the 2011-12 season. Perhaps some pessimistic fans expected the team to struggle, but the vast majority of fans expected some sort of improvement over last season’s seventh-place finish.
The injury bug has certainly bitten this team hard. The results of the injury plague that has swept through the roster can’t be ignored. But there are still plenty of other factors at play which are far more telling signs as to why the Sabres currently reside in 11th place in the East.
Poor goaltending, spotty defensive play and barely any goal scoring have truly condemned this team. As the second half of the 2012 season begins, there are plenty of questions surrounding the future of the core, the coach and even the general manager. First, a few reflections:
Ryan Miller has really hit the skids. After a dazzling start, a bad outing against Philly really started him down the wrong track. His injury in Boston provided an even longer setback and now his streak of games with three goals against is rather staggering.
Jhonas Enroth has been good for the Sabres, yet his recent play has been puzzling. Much like the team’s starter, Enroth enjoyed a great start before tailing of as of late. His numbers, while better than Miller’s, are concerning to many as well.
Enroth is currently playing better hockey. He should be the one seeing the majority of the starts. The Sabres are not in a position to dawdle regarding their goalies. They need points and need them right away. This is very similar to the 2009-10 Boston Bruins. Tim Thomas struggled (after a Vezina year) and Tuukka Rask took over. Last season the opposite was true. Thomas retook the crease and hasn’t looked back since. Bear that in mind when proposing the Sabres trade Miller and Brad Boyes for Jonas Hiller and Ryan Getzlaf, for example.
Defense is offensive
Part of Darcy Regier’s big summer was re-signing Grocery Stick Gragnani, Andrej Sekera and then pulling Christian Ehrhoff from free agency. Those three joined Jordan Leopold, Tyler Myers, Robyn Regehr and Mike Weber on Buffalo’s blue line. That gives you three pure puck movers, two two-way players and two stay-at-home studs. Since only six can play per game (typically) one of those players will obviously sit. For some reason Weber was sat during the beginning of the year. Now that there have been injuries, Weber is a full-time guy.
However, the fact remains that 2/3 of the Buffalo blue line is occupied by offensively gifted, puck moving defensemen. While Ehrhoff has grown, in part from his increase in ice time, the rest of the puck movers have become a liability. Myers seems to have turned a corner, Leopold may be Buffalo’s third best player and Sekera has been quietly effective. But the in-zone effort has been dreadful. The goaltenders are seeing countless odd-man opportunities and the team is paying for this in the win column. Buffalo’s blue line is too soft and forward thinking right now, they need to tighten up and do it quickly.
Manually applying the handcuffs
It was declared that Darcy Regier had full reign over the Sabres’ pocketbook this offseason. He responded by spending serious dough on new faces. Regehr was acquired by trade, but a trade in which Buffalo took on additional salary. He also offered up $8.5 million in cap money per season to Ehrhoff and Ville Leino.
Ehrhoff has bloomed a bit late, really taking advantage of the additional ice time he received when Myers went down. Leino has become a disappointment. There are five more years to truly evaluate him, but it is unlikely he sees the end of the contract if he continues to not produce. Prior to his injury, Leino was playing some good hockey, there seems to be an air of confidence around him, perhaps he is finally turning the corner as well. Now it is just a matter of producing.
What is unfortunate is the fact that Regier spent all the way to the cap with a team loaded with marginal talent making the same money. Unlike other power teams with a few stars and distributing wealth beyond, the Sabres have a team of marginal talent and salary without any breakout players. Regier’s spending is not allowing him to make moves to improve a stagnant hockey club. It is a terrible situation that is bound to get worse.
Playing for a shutout
Even Dominik Hasek couldn’t win games for this club. The Sabres have score three or more goals in 21 games. Of those 21 games they have lost six. So, realistically you could saddle the goaltending for six losses this season. Regardless of how the goalie looked, the team score enough goals to justify a victory. Also of note, the Sabres scored three or more goals in nine of their first ten. That means they have scored three or more just 11 times in their last 31. Yikes.
The Sabres also have scored two goals or fewer in 20 games. So there is a pretty even split there. Of those 20 games, Buffalo has won just three. So, the goaltenders have stolen three wins. The fact of the matter is the Sabres goal scoring, which has come to a grinding halt deserves almost as much blame as the goaltending goes. Sure there should be a few more stolen games if the Sabres are scoring two goals. But based on the money spent to form this roster, it should be a factor.
Check back later today to see the topics that fans will be looking forward to in the second half of the season.