Something, Something Soft Sabres – An FJM Story

Jerry Sullivan put his hockey writing shoes on this week to pen a column on the failings of the Buffalo Sabres. I always look forward to his Sabres coverage because it’s impressive that someone who gets to one game per season has such a solid grasp on the pulse of the franchise.

Buffalo’s struggles this season are well documented as Tim Murray’s moves – or lack thereof – on the blueline were likely the primary reason for Buffalo’s failed season. But using the phrasing of soft sounds a bit off to me. I mean, have you watched how the league has evolved away from heavy, grinding teams in recent years? Considering the title of the column was already well off base, the content couldn’t be much better. So I thought I’d fire up the FJM engines and get to work. My additions to Jerome’s writing will be in bold.

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma had to answer some legitimate questions about his job security over the weekend in Florida. It’s only fair that General Manager Tim Murray be subjected to the same sort of scrutiny during Wednesday’s season-ending press conference.

Granted, Murray isn’t going anywhere. As history tells us, GMs survive longer than coaches in pro sports, even when they’re generally more responsible for the team’s failures. Murray got an overly generous contract extension from the Pegulas for guiding his team to average. See any parallels to Doug Whaley with the Bills? Not really. But I’ll hear you out.

But TM the GM has to take a sizable chunk of the blame for the Sabres’ discouraging season. He’s the genius who put together this maddening and flawed hockey team, one that created unrealistic expectations by rising from historic depths to 81 points, but was exposed as a playoff impostor this season.

Define unrealistic expectations. Whose expectations are we talking about, exactly? Are you referring to Dan Bylsma saying they should be a 95 point team? Are you talking about your imaginary friend Rex Brown? The expectations were to make the playoffs, I wouldn’t call those unrealistic at all. If you said the expectations were to win the Cup, then I think you could say they were unrealistic. But falling short of an attainable goal is far different from creating whatever unrealistic expectations you’re talking about.

Murray’s act is beginning to wear thin. It became fashionable to overpraise him simply for not being Darcy Regier, as a scowling straight shooter who charmed the media with tough-guy quotes and wasn’t afraid to take a big gamble on trades.

But what do the Sabres have to show for it, exactly? An underachieving bunch of overpaid veterans and entitled kids, with an embattled head coach, a sieve of a defense and an increasingly disaffected fan base.

It’s a squad that doesn’t exude much personality – have you read any of Robin Lehner’s quotes lately? Or Jack Eichel’s? Or Evander Kane’s? – or inspire any discernible passion in its long-suffering public. I can’t blame the fans. Ever since I arrived in Buffalo in 1989, I’ve heard their lament about the Sabres, how they lacked grit and were too easy to play against. Why couldn’t they be more like the big, bad Bruins? Where were you in 1996?

After 28 years 28 games in Jerry’s book, things haven’t changed all that much.

For all his tough talk, Murray has put together a team that’s suspiciously like the ones Regier created in his day. It’s built around finesse forwards who look great when things are going their way but tend to fall apart when they encounter a tough and determined opponent.

You know, soft.

The implication that the team is built with too many finesse forwards would imply that they’re physically weak and need to play with more grit, jam and sandpaper. Interestingly, Marcus Foligno ranked 5th in the league (per sportingcharts.com because the NHL stats site is terrible) in hits this season. Rasmus Ristolainen was 25th. Stats guys will tell you that registering too many hits on a game-to-game basis means you’re spending too much time chasing the puck and not enough time possessing it.

The Sabres finished in the middle of the pack in terms of overall fights – you know, the thing the league is moving away from – but Foligno was just outside the top 10 in total fights, registering nine total on the season. Factor in the play of Nicolas Deslauriers, Evander Kane and a few others and the Sabres weren’t exactly shrinking violets. 

So calling the Sabres soft, at least physically, is certainly missing the mark. The league itself is continuing to move away from the premise that big battleships need to dot every roster as the emphasis on skill and speed becomes stronger each year. Last year’s Stanley Cup Champions had nine total fights over the course of the season. That’s the same total Marcus Foligno had on his own this year alone. Of course their opponent had 31. But as the league moves more towards puck possession and away from dressing grocery sticks who play six minutes a night, the need to build heavy, gritty teams becomes less and less important.

Not to mention, trying to build a tougher team is how they got into this mess in the first place. Adding the likes of Steve Ott and John Scott as a way to keep pace with the Bruins in the post-Miller/Lucic world led Buffalo down the path of unskilled play and ultimately, the league basement and this current rebuild.

Look at that Sabres roster and ask yourself, what is this GM’s essential philosophy of winning hockey? What has Murray done but supervise a tank, draft a couple of guys second overall, and make a few bold, dubious deals?

Still banging away on his trades?

He systematically took apart the defense, leaving behind a thin unit that was weak in its own end, couldn’t make the long passes to initiate the offense and allowed the most shots on goal in the NHL (34.3 a game). Robin Lehner should have been given a blindfold and a cigarette on some nights.

This is true. He leveraged blue line depth to bring in additional bodies up front. Brayden McNabb and Nikita Zadorov were moved in deals that brought back forwards. This differs from Tyler Myers or Mark Pysyk who at least saw Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov come the other way in each respective trade. Just looking at those two swaps should tell you all you need to know about the success Murray has had in building this blueline. 

Ironically, the point about the inability to make stretch passes is just as indicative of the porous blueline Murray built as it is of the coach’s system. Jack Eichel thrives carrying the puck into the zone as opposed to playing dump and chase. Gaining the zone by carrying the puck instead of dumping and chasing promotes possession and generates scoring chances. It’s a result that works for any player or any line, not just Eichel. Yet, the Sabres use a stretch pass which puts flatfooted players at the receiving end of a Hail Mary with the hope of chipping and chasing in behind the defense. So while Murray’s lack of success on the blueline is certainly the root of the issues here, the coach’s inability to adjust to the flow of a game was certainly an issue as well.

Ryan O’Reilly called the team pathetic after it was eliminated from the playoff race. You know what’s pathetic (aside from O’Reilly pocketing $11 million this year for 20 goals?) The Sabres led the NHL in power-play percentage, but were only 28th in the league in scoring at even strength.

Ryan O’Reilly’s cap hit is $7,500,000 which is the only figure that matters when it comes to building a roster. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp.

Other players making north of $7,500,000 this season? Jonathan Toews (21 goals), Anze Kopitar (12 goals), Corey Perry (19 goals), Claude Giroux (14 goals), Jakub Voracek (20 goals). I know it’s easy to cherry pick salaries when you’re attacking a GM, but O’Reilly has been a do everything player for the Sabres over the past two seasons and at only 26 years old will be a key component as a two-way center as the rest of Buffalo’s core grows around him.  

That tells you something about their competitive makeup. They’re comfortable when they have a distinct advantage, when their wondrous skills can manifest themselves. Breaking, NHL players have more success when there are fewer defenders on the ice. But they don’t do the gritty work that produces goals at even strength in today’s NHL, the battling down low in what Lindy Ruff liked to call the “dirty areas.”

There’s something entitled about the Sabres. It’s been that way since Pegula rolled into town and started rewarding players before they won anything. When Jack Eichel talked about players not hating losing enough, he might also have been talking about the Pegulas, who seem more interested in their brand than winning titles. Then write a column about One Buffalo.

Murray was supposed to know how to identify tough, winning hockey players, the ones who would skate through a wall for a Stanley Cup and play the game for more than a paycheck. So where are they? It seems to me that Murray is mainly impressed with raw skill, the kind Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart bring to the ice. Those two don’t seem especially passionate about winning.

Have you read your colleague’s work regarding Kane? Have you actually watched him play at all? Maybe you’re sticking to your guns from when he was first acquired and you said the two of you would have a confrontation. If there’s any player on the roster who has been lauded for having a high motor and not quitting at any point during the season, it’s Kane. But we have a narrative to uphold.

Reinhart is a lucky man. If Eichel hadn’t come along, he would be a singular focus of the fans’ discontent, a second overall draft pick who hasn’t come close to jusifying it. Reinhart had eight even-strength goals this season. Being late for a meeting is less troubling than the thought of him as a poor man’s Derek Roy.

I don’t know where this comparison comes from. Perhaps Derek Roy is the first guy you could think of from the last game you attended.

The fact that Reinhart was second overall in a weak draft doesn’t soften the impact. Leon Draisaitl, who went one pick later to Edmonton in the 2014 draft, is eighth in the NHL in scoring with 77 points. Sure, he plays with Connor McDavid. Draisaitl is also a 6-2, 215-pound Cam Neely type LOL, the kind of power forward that Sabres fans have long coveted.

Reinhart had a disappointing year. He surpassed his rookie year scoring but he went cold for far too long. Yet I find the revisionist history with Reinhart and Draisaitl to be pretty rich. Both had nearly identical numbers in the WHL during their draft year and most of the chatter from pundits and fans alike centered around the two Sams, Bennett and Reinhart. Draisaitl’s numbers were strong but a fairly weak World Juniors left him as the fourth favorite after Ekblad and the two Sams. In the end the Sabres took the playmaking center while Edmonton surpised some by taking the big German. Reinhart has hardly been unproductive, he just hasn’t scored like Patrik Laine, which makes for easy pickings for fans who only care to grab the low hanging fruit.

Jerry actually highlights the key crux of the entire argument in the above paragraph: Connor McDavid. Draisaitl’s numbers last season, when McDavid was injured for a long stretch and the two weren’t joined at the hip were just a touch above Reinhart’s. When Draisaitl was moved away from center and to the wing (sound like any second overall picks we know) he thrived alongside McDavid, who is quickly proving to be one of the best players in the world.

That doesn’t excuse Reinhart’s roller coaster season. He needs a summer closer to that of 2015 than 2016, as he seemed to plateau this year as opposed to progressing further. But I still get a kick out of people critiquing him as some sort of black hole despite producing just shy of 50 points this year. He certainly needs to be better, but he’s hardly the wasted player Sully wants you to see him as.

Bylsma has his shortcomings, but this is Murray’s handiwork. He’s working with the roster that Murray gave him. It has to gall Sabres fans to hear echoes of the Regier regime, when Ruff was similarly accused of forcing a conservative system on a defensively challenged team and stifling the offensive gifts of the players.

Pay no mind to similar things being said of Bylsma at the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh or during his stint behind the US bench in Sochi.

It also must sting to see the Leafs’ rebuild go shooting past them, led by a slew of precocious young players and a coach, Mike Babcock, who snubbed the Pegulas and went North. Toronto could torment them within the division for years to come, in the way the Patriots have the Bills for nearly two decades.

Fill in your Bingo boards, we have a Leafs rebuild reference. Double points for tying in the Bills and Patriots. The overwhelming need to foist another team’s rebuild on Buffalo fans is so incredibly laughable. Why not say the Sabres need to keep up with the Penguins or Capitals while we’re at it? The obsession with what the Leafs are doing at One News Plaza is really quite embarrassing. Are you rooting for the Leafs now? I know it’s easy to sell papers to the collective least common denominator of fans by creating a narrative that what the Leafs are doing somehow directly affects the Sabres plans.

Just because the Leafs finished higher than the Sabres this season means that Buffalo’s rebuild has suddenly failed. You might be surprised to learn that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can’t keep up with another team’s rebuild. Each team has different players, different draft picks and different draft positions. The narrative that the Leafs rebuild has “blown past” Buffalo’s is nothing more than a cheap talking point that froths up those LCD fans more than a deeper, more relevant topic.  

The honeymoon is over for Murray. He proved he could lose on purpose. Super. Now it’s time to show he can put together a winner, a tough, resilient hockey team. Go ahead and point to injuries. But the Sabres seemed on the verge of a breakthrough on Feb. 18, when they got to 26-23-10 and a point out of a playoff spot.

So maybe what you’re saying is they’re close to being a playoff contender?

They promptly lost eight out of nine, allowing more than four goals a game in that wretched span. That’s who they were, a team that got a sniff of success and went to pieces, a fraudulent lol contender that wasn’t ready for the challenge of an honest-to-goodness playoff race.

Oh ok. But following what you laid out here, if Murray shores up the blueline you could fairly assume that they’d push past that benchmark coming out of the bye week as opposed to falling flat. So maybe they aren’t so much a fraud as they are a piece or two from being a team like, say, the Maple Leafs. A team driven by a young core with the right pieces interspersed into the roster.

Murray has become the hockey equivalent of Doug Whaley, a first-time general manager who spent a ton of money, made some dazzling trades and has yet to win a thing. Six months after getting an extension from the Pegulas, he’s a diminished figure.

And people are calling for Bylsma’s head?

What I don’t understand about this column is how Sullivan spent his time trying to beat down Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane (well maybe that last one isn’t so surprising) when albatross contracts like Matt Moulson’s and Tyler Ennis’ are staring you right in the face if you log into Cap Friendly.

Buffalo’s shortcomings aren’t from the players that Murray has added, far from it. It’s the players that Murray has retained who are doing the damage. Ennis has a 4.6 cap hit and due to an unfortunate run of injuries, isn’t the 20-plus goal scorer who appeared to be growing at an impressive rate just two years ago. Moulson is a shadow of the goal scorer he was in New York and the length Murray gave him on a deal needed to hit the cap floor in 2014-15 is still hurting Buffalo on the cap.

If you must compare to the Leafs, which is such a lazy, tired talking point, look no further than the money they have stashed in LTIR and the AHL. Where the Sabres have anchor deals like Moulson or Ennis taking up space on the NHL roster, Toronto has over $20 million hidden from their books. Should Murray position himself properly this summer after expansion and perhaps a buyout or two, he too will have the cap space to fix the mess he made on the blueline.

Of course, it’s probably hard to draw those conclusions when you only pop your head in the arena once a year.

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