The Instigator Podcast 4.19 – Season Recap

With the playoffs in full swing and the draft lottery behind us, Tyler and Chris get together to unwind the Sabres 2015-16. On the docket is a position-by-position breakdown, outlook on the offseason and reaction to Buffalo’s fate from the lottery on Saturday.

Sabres in review: What went wrong

After taking a look at a few of the bright spots for the Sabres this season, here are a few of the lowlights from the up and down season that saw the Sabres fall short of a playoff berth.

Injuries

By no means do I feel that injuries are the reason for Buffalo’s poor showing this year. But I certainly think they played a part in the downfall. I place this first because I’m tired of talking about it, so I want to get it out of the way.

It is obvious that injuries played a role in the Sabres’inability to defend and produce consistent offense at various points throughout the year. For example, having Paul Szecechura centering your top two scorers isn’t an ideal situation. The same can be said for needing to dress Derek Whitmore and Marcus Foligno for their NHL debut on the same roster as T.J. Brennan and Brayden McNabb.

The reason injuries can’t be pegged as the only reason for Buffalo’s struggles is that many of their regulars remained in the lineup. Derek Roy and Drew Stafford’s stagnant first half had little to do with other players being injured. The same goes for Ville Leino and Brad Boyes – although those two did miss some time due to ailments.

I think the only major issue that Buffalo couldn’t overcome was the way their defense was affected by the injury bug. By forcing Mike Weber into big minutes, while Brennan, Joe Finley and McNabb also took regular shifts, the Sabres were obviously operating with lesser talent in places where they needed strong players. I have to think the defensive strategy did suffer at times when the injuries were really bad, but that doesn’t excuse the inability of some of Buffalo’s core to perform at an adequate level.

Line shuffling

One piece of criticism that I’ll never deflect from Lindy Ruff is how he treats his lines. He is far too impatient with the production of some and far too loyal to others. Luke Adam, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek were terrific to begin the year, but the line was broken up by the end of November. Those three players spent the rest of the season bouncing between different lines and experiencing different levels of success as the season progressed. Adam ended up in Rochester because he couldn’t find traction after the success he had with the team’s top two scorers.

Ville Leino and Brad Boyes are also part of this conversation. After proving he wasn’t a capable center, Leino was bounced around every single line on the team before ultimately settling on the wing with Derek Roy and Pominville. That was in March. Leino had an ugly season and didn’t justify his paycheck. However, you have to wonder if he had been given a fair chance to develop some chemistry with two linemates that his numbers may have been better.

Showing little to no trust in the players he groups together is one of Lindy Ruff’s greatest faults. I feel that he did more harm than good this season with the choices he made regarding who his players skated with.

Jhonas Enroth

Enroth makes this list not for his play, but the way he was utilized. Or should I say, underutilized?

After a great stretch of hockey last year, Enroth stayed hot in the fall working in tandem with Ryan Miller. He took over from Miller when Buffalo’s starter was injured and things began to head downhill. As the team deteriorated, as did Enroth’s game. He hadn’t won a game since November entering a stretch of hockey that saw him get a rare start on a back-to-back set. His losing streak is still intact heading into 2012-13.

Enroth is a very capable backup, but he needs to be used properly. Sitting him on the bench to get pickled will do nothing for his development or his impact on the team. Miller was called to start 30-straight games yet again, it is a situation that needs to end one day. One day soon.

Ville Leino & Brad Boyes

Buffalo’s pair of $4M+ wingers combined for 16 goals. You wouldn’t pay a single player their combined salary to score 16 goals. Both had their own types of let downs, but I would say Boyes was a bigger bust.

Boyes did fall victim to playing on the fourth line, which seriously choked off his offensive output. However, he did see plenty of time on Buffalo’s stagnant power play and didn’t pick up many points there. Despite his impressive start last spring, Boyes has been a disappointing player during his time in Buffalo.

As for Leino, there are a number of things he does quite well. His puck control is phenomenal and he makes some strong plays in the offensive zone. However, the scoring wasn’t there. Why? I feel that Leino’s adjustment period was longer because of being expected to play center and his general style of play. Add in the fact that he found himself playing nearly every position on every line the Sabres put out this year.  Still, he wasn’t the player they expected or needed him to be. For $4.5M, that simply can’t happen.

Power Play

To think I thought all would be better when Brian McCutcheon moved on. I was way off. The Buffalo power play remained streakier than generic Windex and failed to be a difference maker at numerous times during the season.

For the second-straight season, the Sabres failed to figure out how to enter the zone properly; relying on that idiotic drop pass and flat footed attacks. The organization acquired a premier point shooter, but he wasn’t used as such. Rather than build their attack around Christian Ehrhoff, the Sabres treated him as just another player and it showed.

The numbers may not back up all of my claims regarding the power play, but an eye test would show that this unit was in desperate need of an overhaul. Perhaps Scott Arniel is interested in coming back to reprise his role from 2005-06.

Sabres in review: What went right

Hopefully my season recap provided a broad view of the ups and downs of the Sabres’ season. Chances are that I didn’t accomplish such a goal, apologies. I would also like to highlight some more specific cases as to the pros and cons, the good and bad of the 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres season. What went right and wrong will be presented in different posts. First, what went right.

Tyler Ennis

Like just about everyone on the roster, Ennis didn’t enjoy a full year of successful hockey. However, when Ennis finally got healthy, he was one of Buffalo’s most consistent and dangerous forwards.

Despite missing 34 games with a high ankle sprain, Ennis finished the season with 34 points (15+19) in 48 games. His early season struggles were caused by his injury. Seven of Ennis’ multi-point games came in the final 15 contests of the season. His move to center not only jump started his production, but it provided a spark to the entire roster. He found instant chemistry with Drew Stafford and eventually Marcus Foligno. Ennis has suddenly become the best center in the Sabres organization and will be due a healthy raise, I’m guessing in the $3M range.

Jason Pominville

Pominville won the team MVP award and he earned it. Despite all of their struggles this season, Pominville was the only consistent performer over 82 games. Aside from last year, Pominville has always been a consistent point scorer over the entire year. He hit 30 goals, the only Sabre to do so this season.

He embraced the captaincy, despite not being an outspoken, rah-rah player. His first All-Star appearance was great to see and well deserved from a player who used to be a whipping boy for many fans. I have to think he could have achieved more had he been kept with the same linemates for a majority of the season. Separating he and Thomas Vanek didn’t do well for either player’s numbers.

Thomas Vanek (1st Half)

Vanek’s first half play probably surpassed the contributions that Pominville at certain points. However, January brought some bumps and bruises that developed into what seem to be nagging injuries. His second half was one of the biggest disappointments on the year, but his first half play was one of the reasons the Sabres were competitive on some nights.

I won’t include Vanek in both the highs and lows, but understand that he did need to be better during the homestretch this year. Perhaps if he was given the same center for the entire year and treated like an actual superstar, not a 13-minute third line winger, he would continue to top the 30-goal plateau. Continue reading

Is it time for Ruff and Regier to move on?

The comments made by some players, namely Derek Roy, at Monday’s locker clean out makes me wonder what the shelf life of Lindy Ruff may be. I have little doubt that both Ruff and Darcy Regier will remain in place as the Sabres enter the 2012-13 season. The question that many are asking is should the two remain in charge of the Sabres?

Based on their track record over the past decade and a half –particularly since the lockout – I think the duo may be overdue to be replaced with a new general manager and head coach combination. But the organizational heading seems to be to proceed with the current coach and GM while allowing them to find the right players to win games.

It is ok if Terry Pegula, Ted Black and the rest of the executive staff think this is the proper course of action. I am glad they have identified a strategy that they wish to move forward with. Whether or not this is the right strategy is a whole different question. I do not disagree with the heading the ownership has chosen to take, I just wonder if Regier and Ruff are indeed the pair to get the job done.

There are two facts staring everyone in the face regarding this debate are the Sabres failure to make the playoffs and their failure to win a playoff series. The Sabres have missed the playoffs three times since the lockout and have made the playoffs four times. However, they haven’t won a playoff series since dispatching the Rangers in 2007.

Questions about the makeup of the roster, the team’s tougheness and the coaching style would still be questioned had the Sabres snuck into the playoffs this year. In fact, I would argue that the missing the playoffs argument would be moot with a third-straight berth under their belt. Of course they’re not in the playoffs and the balance between missing and making the playoffs remains pretty even. The roster is expected to change this summer, but maybe the management needs to change as well.

Darcy Regier

This summer very well may be make or break for Darcy Regier. He shot for the moon last year but didn’t get the expected results. Regier will have significantly less cap space to work with and will likely need to make a trade or two if he wishes to land a big fish in free agency.

With Jochen Hecht and Brad Boyes off the books, Regier will need to find a bona fide checking center to replace Hecht’s defensive responsibility and the traits lost when Paul Gaustad was traded to Nashville. Regier does have four picks in the top 65 selections and could certainly use them to leverage a trade including one of his roster players.

Regier needs to identify the shortcomings his team had this year and shore them up immediately. He made a great move in acquiring Cody Hodgson and Alex Sulzer. Sulzer paid immediate dividends and is probably due for a new contract, but Hodgson is the big prize. He is a young, dynamic center who will need to play a big role next year. Regier still needs to find his team a true number one center, but that will be a tall task. Along with adding a little more size an toughness, Regier will need to have another successful offseason, despite operating with fewer resources. Continue reading

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.*

This scenario happened far too often throughout the year.

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. Continue reading