A summer wind blew into snowy Buffalo last February in the form of new owner Terry Pegula, who pledged to spend whatever it took to make the Buffalo Sabres a contender again.
The team quickly responded, climbing to seventh place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference over the second half of the season. The Sabres lost in the first round of the playoffs but, with Pegula promising to spend money on free agents, optimism abounded.
Pegula kept his word, allowing Sabres general manager Darcy Regier to sign defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino to big-money contracts. Another big contract was added when defenceman Robyn Regehr arrived in a trade.
Then Pegula spent buckets of money transforming the Sabres’ quarters at their arena into a state-of-the-art dressing room and training centre. Heady stuff for a team that spent years on a budget.
But now, as Frank Sinatra sang about summer wind, the autumn wind and the winter wind have come and gone and still the days, those lonely days, go on and on. Almost one year after Pegula took over, the Sabres sit with roughly the same record they had then, 19-21-5 going into their game Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks, but with no sense of another red-hot finish to slide into the playoffs.
Far from it. The Sabres are in the midst of a six-game trip and went into Chicago having lost nine consecutive road games.
Pegula told the Buffalo News last week that injuries are the root of all the Sabres’ woes. Seven players – goaltender Ryan Miller, defenceman Tyler Myers and forwards Brad Boyes, Jochen Hecht, Tyler Ennis, Leino and Nathan Gerbe missed eight games or more with injuries. Now Ehrhoff is out indefinitely and Regehr may miss a week with an injury.
However, a pro scout for an NHL team, who spends a lot of time watching the Sabres, says their problems seem to be more psychological than physical. The scout noted Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff have run the team together for more than 14 years and their core group of players have been together for a long time as well and wonders if they don’t all have a collective case of the blahs.
“It seems like it’s just stagnated,” said the scout, who wished to remain anonymous in order to remain employed. “There’s nothing wrong with Lindy Ruff as a coach, but he’s been there forever, Darcy’s been there forever. The core players have been there forever.
“They don’t seem to play with a lot of passion. It’s just like playing by rote. That’s the way it struck me.”
The scout admits the Sabres’ injury problems are more severe than the norm but adds, “Have theirs been any worse than Pittsburgh’s? Start with Sidney Crosby and go from there.”
The statistics back up the scout’s assessment. Justin Pominville, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Paul Gaustad, Hecht and Miller have all been in Buffalo for six seasons or more. Only Pominville, with 44 points in 45 games, and Vanek, with 41 points in 45 games, are having good seasons. After them, the production dips to Roy’s 25 points before Wednesday.
Neither Ehrhoff nor Leino are giving anywhere close to the value of their contracts.
Miller is the source of the most consternation. He’s gone from one of the NHL’s best goaltenders to 42nd in goals-against average (3.12) and 40th in save percentage (.898) before the Chicago game.
He missed eight games with a concussion last November but there’s been no solid explanation for a decline that has him fending off questions about a trade. Both Miller and Regier said Tuesday that trades are not the answer.
But the Sabres sure give the impression of a team in need of a shakeup. The stagnation seems odd considering the joy professed by the players over Pegula’s injection of cash into the operation.
The scout says money is a funny thing in NHL dressing rooms. Sometimes, when some players with big contracts are added to a team with a large number of incumbents, some of whom are not making as much, a malaise can take hold. Players can also quickly get complacent when showered with luxuries like fancy dressing rooms.
“When the belly is full, what more is there to push for?” the scout asked.