The Buffalo Sabres entered the season this way. No amount of early-season success or money-spending from a high-profile new owner was ever going to change that, no matter what any of the hype surrounding the team said.
And congratulations to Ryan Miller for just having figured this out.
If you weren’t paying attention last night, Miller and the Sabres got lit up by Detroit (which picked up its 15th consecutive home win in the process) for five goals on 14 shots in a little more than 24 minutes of work and in the postgame grumbled that no one roster decision was going to magically right the ship. That much is true. They’re 11th in the conference and slipping, which is really bad for a team that won 12 of its first 19 games.
“If you guys really think there’s going to be any kind of trade made anywhere that’s going to affect this team any more than we can affect it in this locker room, you guys are just … I don’t know what to think, because there’s no such trade,” he told Yahoo! after the game.
Short of acquiring a Sidney Crosby free of brain issues, there’s probably not a single player in the league that can magically make a team that stinks this badly —the Sabres haven’t won on the road since Dec. 3 and since that time have won just five of their 17 games — and suddenly make them a playoff contender.
The reasons why should be obvious.
It had been said for some time now that the Sabres’ struggles were related to injuries. A number of alleged key contributors have missed significant time, and that was where Pegula recently decided to hang the blame for the underwhelming performance. But now guys are coming back to the lineup and they’re still not playing well, so those cries of “injuries” (which by the way nearly all teams are dealing with) seem particularly misplaced. Anyone who’s been paying the slightest bit of attention likely has a better idea of the real causes for the Sabres’ struggles.
Despite spending something like $80 million in salary this season and being uncomfortably close to the cap, the Sabres did little to improve their club, which somehow finished with 96 points and made the playoffs last year thanks to a very strong second-half surge after a dismal start. New owner Terry Pegula and GM Darcy Regier proved, if nothing else, that just because you have tons of money and are willing to spend it doesn’t mean you’re going to do it well.
Obviously the proof of this lies with Buffalo’s investment in Ville Leino, six years and $4.5 million against the cap per. A problematic contract for a problematic player that everyone outside the greater Buffalo area thought wasn’t worth it. Oh, the laughs we shared over that one. And really, Leino has played worse than anyone could have guessed, racking up a menacing three goals and seven assists in 34 games. That’s good for 14th on the team. But you knew that.
What fewer people are talking about is that an even more burdensome contract, one signed by Christian Ehrhoff for 10 years with a $4 million annual cap hit, is working out almost as poorly. Ehrhoff was brought in to quarterback the Buffalo power play, and has failed spectacularly in giving it it any added jump. In fact, at just 18 percent, the Sabres’ power play is actually less efficient than it was last year. Ehrhoff has tallied just three goals and 17 points in 37 games to go with a minus-11 rating (though some of that can be blamed on poor goaltending, which Buffalo has received a good amount of), a far cry from the 14-36-50 and 14-30-44 he’s put up in the past two seasons, and what Darcy Regier ostensibly paid for. But then, one supposes that no one in Buffalo’s dressing room, or really any other team’s, is quite on the level of the Sedin twins in terms of scoring goals.
None of this is to say that there were better players than the ones tabbed to fill those roles available on the open market when the Sabres signed them, but again, just because you have money to spend doesn’t mean you are contractually obligated to spend all of it.
Another problem, clearly, is that no one is scoring for this team outside Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, who have a combined 85 points. The next four leading scorers on the team — Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Luke Adam and Ehrhoff — have 84 between them, with Roy’s 25 falling 16 short of Vanek’s 41 and 19 shy of Pominville’s team-leading 44. Adam is the only other Sabre besides Pominville or Vanek who has a double-digit goal total, and he plays with them pretty regularly, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Lindy Ruff has tried splitting his two leading scorers in very limited circumstances here and there but has, to his credit, reversed direction on those plans pretty quickly. The other lines have been almost entirely lifeless and that’s easy for teams with even half-decent D corps to prepare for and defend.
Then, of course, Miller’s .898 save percentage in a somehow-team-leading 27 games isn’t doing anyone any favors, so the fact that he’s making the complaints about it seem even more ill-timed and does nothing to diminish his growing reputation as a crybaby.
But even if he can’t stop a shot these days, Miller’s at least not letting the overarching point get by him as far as his club is concerned: The Sabres are a broken team. Irreparably so, at least in the 2011-12 season. Injuries, ill-advised contracts, and underperformance have all contributed. That means there are no easy solutions.