Head coach Lindy Ruff said what I think will wind up best describing this year's team while struggling though this seven game road trip.
"We don't deal well with adversity."
The first full season under owner Terry Pegula certainly didn't seem to start out that way. The additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff on defense, and Ville Leino up front. They took action and locked up cornerstone defenseman Tyler Myers long term.
This was the mindset fans had been waiting for. This would surely lead to on ice results.
I certainly began to feel that way traveling with the team in Europe. There was the natural concern about how quickly chemistry would develop, but it seemed like a process that was well underway. I genuinely got the sense this was a group that got along off the ice. The visit to the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl Germany seemed to unify things in a significant way. Things seemed to translate on the ice with wins over the Ducks and Kings in Finland and Germany to get things started.
Pegula is quick to point to a 11-6 start.
Then the injuries started piling up.... adversity wave number one.
I will grant they have been a factor in all this. Lindy Ruff has not been able to keep a line-up together on a consistent basis. It's a situation that breeds inconsistency, confusion, strained communication, and mistakes. It heightens the impact of poor decision making like Leino's blind drop pass Wednesday at Chicago that resulted in a turnover and a puck that wound up in the Sabres net only seconds later. It gave the Hawks 3-2 lead and was a moment from which the Sabres could never recover in a 6-2 loss.
But I think the moment that will ultimately define this season happened November 12th in Boston. I'm of course referring to the hit by Milan Lucic on goaltender Ryan Miller and the Sabres lack of response. I know this is old news at this point, but I think put in the context of where this team stands now, and Ruff's remarks about this group's inability to deal with adversity, I think it's very relevant. The team has spent a great deal of time and energy over compensating for its lack of response that night at TD Garden and subsequent label as "soft."
It became a team more about proving what it wasn't than what it is.
A lack of consistency in the line-up, a lack of indentity, a lack of quality goaltending, and apparent lack of leadership has this team like a ship without a rudder.
Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville have been the only consistent producers up front. At the time of this writing, before Saturday night's game at St. Louis, Vanek and Pominville had combined for 36 goals. Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Nathan Gerbe, Brad Boyes, Paul Gaustad, Leino, Jochen Hecht, and Tylers Ennis and Myers had combined for a total of 41.
Darcy Regier's offseason additions who either are hurt or have been hurt haven't produced. Villie Leino has three goals and seven assists in 36 games. Defensemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff (both injured at the time of this writing) are a combined minus 24.
You've got to go three pages deep on the NHL stats page to find Ryan Miller who ranks 64th with a 3.16 GAA.
The season started with Lindy Ruff naming Pominville captain, with Vanek, Gaustad, Stafford, and Roy to revolve as assistants. It was a decision to place leadership responsibility with a core group that had been with the organization. And while Pominville and Vanek have produced, its a group that's done little to lead through and out of the adversity that Ruff refers to.
The Sabres are nine points out of a playoff spot 47 games into the season. Pressure continues to mount for GM Darcy Regier to make a move to change the direction of the season. I would argue he should change the direction of the franchise.
It certainly seems as if the downward spiral will continue toward the Februrary 27th trade deadline. Independent of how you feel about the futures of GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff, the philosophy needs to change moving forward. Since the departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in July of 2007, the core group that Regier has remained loyal two has made the playoffs twice, losing to the Bruins and Flyers in the opening round each of the last two seasons. The Sabres will likely be among the first to start booking tee times this spring.
Assuming the trend continues, the Sabres should become sellers at the deadline. Let this season prove once and for all that this core group is not championship caliber. Clear some space, add more parts this summer. Moves that should coincide with the growth of some prospects that are the product of a philosophy to draft bigger and more physical players in recent years to match trends in the game.
Let this season be evidence that the answer isn't a short term shake-up, but rather a long term change in focus.