I got a chance to watch the recently re-booted Sabres play against Tampa, distraction-free, and it was an illuminating experience. Having missed the games against Nashville and Florida I couldn't comment on them, and by all accounts, who would have wanted to? The Sabres are bad right now, and the reasons why are manifest. Ready? See if you disagree with the list:
- A lack of secondary scoring. The team that was the poster child for a balanced, deep attack has become the Thomas Vanek show.
- Forwards cheating in the defensive zone and not supporting the defense-men at all.
- Poor transition game because of the large gap between them and the defense.
- Insistence that this is 2006 and not nearly 2009, so shinny is still the way they think they can win.
- No one except Vanek is willing to bury a shoulder and drive the net. The entire team, to a man skates across the blue-line, pulls up short to set up a 5 man offense that looks like a bad power play
- There's little battle in the corner for pucks. Winning one on one battles along the boards was a specialty and now it's a liability.
- They are terrible at even strength, a team total -15.
- Drew Stafford has no sophmore slump excuse. Grow up or get out.
- Very little willingness to stand up for each other. They are now a collection of guys rather than a team.
Well, I said the game was interesting last night and here's why. It was like watching a litany of all the problems mixed directly with their solutions for sixty minutes. Hecht scores a great goal, deflecting Adam Mair's deflection of Toni Lydman's point shot after digging the puck out of the corner and the next shift carelessness with the puck in the neutral zone allows the Lightning to manufacture a rush up ice and Vinnie Prospal scores a goal not 30 seconds later.
We see shift after shift of offensive zone dominance in the 2nd period and they manufacture two goals out of hard work and persistence only to have Miller let in a softie from 60 feet out. Ruff was right to call Miller out after the Florida loss. He has to make the save that lets his teammates know they can push up ice to score goals. His stats are fine, but goaltending is about timing. When you make the big save is as important as making the little ones. Just ask Marty Brodeur. Miller, as well, knows this. Last night he finally locked down the game after letting Tampa back into it by making a number of good saves in the last five minutes after his teammates held the 'Ning shotless through the first fifteen of the period. This was especially good considering the only defensive zone draw the Sabres won was the last one (out of 5) with 12.5 seconds left in the game.
In desperation, the team called up Nathan Gerbe to try and fill out the top two lines because Drew Stafford and Max Afinogenov refuse to show up every night. The result? Stafford gets the message and responds with his best game since he won Rookie of the Month in March 2007. A goal and 2 assists, +3 in 16:06 of Ice Time. He skated with Gerbe and Roy as the nominal top line. Stafford has to do the things he did last night every night to earn himself the big contract that others his age have been receiving come July 1st.
How out of favor is Afinogenov with Ruff? In the last minute of the game, nursing a 4-3 lead, Gerbe took his regular shift with his line-mates and Max was on the bench. While he skated harder and worked smarter than he had in weeks, there was absolutely nothing to show for any of it. All sound and fury signifying....?
A trip to somewhere else. Hopefully. He skated like he was showcasing himself for a trade. Fine, Max. Score a couple of goals then become someone else's headcase, or in you case, lack-of-head-case.
The most promising moment of the night for me that this team may actually have some pride and decide that they're tired of losing was the fight that Jochen Hecht picked with Prince Vinny Lecavalier. I can't remember the last time Hecht dropped the mitts, he's the epitome of the quiet yet tough hockey player. But, something finally snapped in him and he took Vincenzo to task for whacking him behind the knees. Note the big right that Hecht landed to pretty much end the festivities (Fight linked at the end). Hecht needed to do that. He's one of those guys that have not been playing well since his return from a hand injury. 3 goals and 7 points in 16 games is not enough. But, with Hecht it's not the points that matter, but rather the little things. He's been as guilty of playing hot potato(e) with the puck as any of them. It's a tough sell to the young guys for Ruff if his veterans don't make smart puck decisions.
I'm focusing on the forwards' problems because they are the lynchpin to the defense's struggles. Without good support the defense cannot get the puck out of the zone after they've done the hard work to get it back. How many times have I watched Tallinder or Rivet go back to get the puck and have no outlet to a forward and have to blindly throw it around the net to his partner, putting him in a bad spot to get rocked? Too many. Truth be told, only a handful of the forwards collapse back below the tops of the circles and it's the primary issue with their defensive zone coverage five-on-five.
This team is a far cry from the 2005-06 squad that literally did everything right. I'm sure that GM Darth Regier is close to doing something to shake things up, if only to alleviate the budgetary strains of Afinogenov and Connolly. The solution, if he can convince himself to do it, is to waive those two guys and use the salary (nearly $7 million annually) to then convince the AWOL Mats Sundin to sign in Buffalo. Sundin would give them everything they need down the middle and create space for at least one other line, solving the unbalanced nature of the Sabres 'attack,' as well as all the other things Sundin.
Would Sundin sign in Buffalo? No idea, but it seems the obvious choice to me.