You would really think, looking at the Buffalo Sabres roster, that the average age was about 34. Why’s that? Because the names have been so familiar for so long. Try Gionta, Gorges, Moulson, Meszaros, Stewart, and more. It’s like they’ve been around forever. In fact, their average age is 26.5, while that of the LA Kings is 27.4. So why do they seem so familiar?
Because this club seems to take the castoffs and also-rans from whoever seems to be discarding them at the time. Gionta. Tiny former captain of the Montreal Canadiens, now wearing the C in Buffalo. Moulson. A failure with the Kings in 29 games over two seasons, later a success with the Isles and Sabres-Wild-Sabres in a switcheroo deal that most people recall happening last season. Meszaros, who sticks in my memory as an inflated ego wearing sunglasses indoors on media day in 2007 when his Senators were supposed to be readying themselves to win the Cup over Anaheim. They lost in five games. Chris Stewart, 18th-overall pick in 2006 who has now flipped to his third team in the NHL to go along with a couple of European squads during the lockout year.
How is this gang ever supposed to win? In fact, they’re not winning. They’ve played eight games and lost all but one. They’ve been shutout three times, twice consecutively and three times in their last four games. In three other games, they’ve scored but a single goal. Their total goal output was nine coming into Thursday night, and it was that same number at the end of the evening. This ties them for last in the league with the team directly ahead of them in the standings, Florida.
And what’s worse, their goaltending gets bombed out night after night. Their goals against total stood at 26 coming into Thursday evening against the Kings, which ranks them below only Philly in the East and Edmonton in the West. And if you add up Buffalo’s goals for and against, the differential, which I’ve been calculating for years but which has just now made it onto the official NHL stats sheet, is -19. That is way, way, far, way worse than any other team in the NHL. The next worst entering Thursday’s play? Colorado and Edmonton, each at -12, each sitting in the basement of one of the Divisions in the West.
How can that be? Their netminders are Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. That in itself is not cause for alarm. But their records are. Enroth has a losing record over his career. Neuvirth a winning one. Each has a GAA hovering between 2.70 and 2.80 mark career-wise. And their save percentages are practically identical at .913 and 9.11. By comparison, the league’s better goalies are letting in about half a goal less per game.
But there’s only so much they can do. The Kings fired 39 shots at Enroth, and he was excellent, but even he’s realistic. “We can’t win if we don’t score more than them. We know what the problem is right now, but we’re just going to keep working on it. The guys in here trust in each other, and I’ve seen it in practice. There’s a couple of guys who can put the puck behind me, so I’m sure it’s going to get better soon.”
Not if you listen to their coach, Ted Nolan. “Our last couple of games, our effort’s been a lot better. We have to work for what we want. When we get across the blueline, it’s pass the puck rather than shooting the puck . . . .” He said further, “Everything starts with work. The first five or six games, the effort wasn’t there. The last couple of games, the effort’s there, but the details that go into the mix [this trailed off into nothing]. Guys were driving by the net. We’re not a fancy team. We get it across the blueline, we want to pass the puck for some reason. We’ve got to shoot the puck.”
He essentially admitted that there’s little hope. “The only way to get out of this is to simplify our game and not get frustrated.” But how does a team do that? He seemed lost on this point. He later added, “We need to look at a few guys and have heart-to-heart discussions with those guys tomorrow. You’ve gotta shoot the puck. The simpler the better, but I don’t know what you do.” This in regards to the power play, but perhaps more generally true. “We only have the group we have, and they have to, I mean, Drew Stafford is a 20-goal scorer. Matty Moulson is a 20-goal scorer. Ennis. Hodgson. We have to find a way to get some shots through and battle and play for those spots.”
Back to Enroth. “I’m trying to be a mental warrior, I call it. I try to focus on the next shot, focus for sixty minutes and see what happens.” But when asked about playing San Jose next, he sighed a big sigh. “There are a lot of big guys on that team, too. It’s going to be a tough one, but we have to play big, fight through this. It’s going to be a tough one.”
What happened to him is that he got no support and lost. The stats won’t show later how well me played. It’s too bad.
Watching the team from the Staples Center press box, the impression one gets is not so much that the Sabres are small compared to the Kings. That was what Winnipeg looked like. Kind of like a college team playing an NFL squad. It wasn’t that they weren’t as good, though the Kings handled them pretty easily. But they just looked puny. The Sabres (who are in fact the same size as the Kings, height-wise and about 7lbs. lighter on average), rather, look simply not as skilled. Cliches would say they don’t play as a team. It’s that, but it’s not that simple. Rather, it’s that each guy makes just enough mistakes to make the whole effort add up to a bit of a gong show.
Too harsh? Consider that within 29 seconds, the Sabres were killing a penalty. But seven seconds after that, they were a goal down. The play came off the faceoff where Toffoli put it to the point for Doughty, who passed it left for Carter. He wristed it to the net and in, with Toffoli screening.
But that’s the play of the Kings, not the Sabres. That went something like this most of the night: Nicolas Deslauriers gave the puck away to Toffoli behind the Sabres’ net. Toffoli put it back into Deslauriers’ body trying to pass it out front, but got it back. He eventually fed it to the point, and it was soft-wristed back to the net, where Toffoli did a mini-redirect. This was early, less than halfway through the first period, and the shots were 8-6 for LA.
Of course, that also meant that Buffalo had had some chances. The most notable came when Stewart stole a puck after a Doughty mistake and tore down the ice. Someone caught up with him as he got to the Kings’ net, and he got off nothing but a weak backhand.
How did that happen? The Sabres loosey-goosey play kind of infected the Kings, who normally, as is commonly known, play the most buttoned-down game in the league. Instead of that, it became player chasing player, with LA capitalizing on their chances and Buffalo not.
Don’t take that to mean that the game was not entertaining. I for one could use with a little less perfectly structured play once in a while. Think about it. The day every player makes the perfect play every time and no errors are committed, there won’t be another goal scored.
Opening the game up a little bit, even if it was a result of a mistake or two, might not be such a bad thing. Thursday in LA, the stunning shot totals (for the Kings) of 39 for and 29 against meant for some good action. But most of the Sabres chances were not dangerous. Perhaps the most frightening from the LA point of view was the last, a bouncer which skipped in and almost fooled Quick, on the track for a team-record 33rd shutout. He got it, obviously. And he didn’t have to be anywhere close to as good as he was several days ago in notching blanking 32 against St. Louis (43 shots faced, many, many dangerous ones).
Torrey Mitchell was essentially in agreement with his coach. “Frustrating,” he said about the game. “We’re a frustrated group, that’s for sure. If we’re not getting two points, we’re not doing the right things.” Brian Gionta was so angry after the game that he emitted almost a low growl sitting in his stall, the words “Bug off” practically emblazoned on his forehead.
But there is a bright spot. They have several first-rounders in their lineup, including Ristolainen on D and Girgensons at center. And Tyler Ennis leads the team in goal-scoring, with three goals. OK, that’s not quite enough to set anything on fire. The Kings, a notoriously low-scoring team, at least unless Marian Gaborik is on the ice for them, have one player with five goals (Tanner Pearson), one with four (Jeff Carter) and one with three (Toffoli, all of whom play on the same line).
It could be said that Ennis is whatever future the Sabres may have. He’s a 2008 draftee, 26th overall, and he has zoomed to 72 goals almost before you can say “Western New York.” He also has nearly 100 assists and is averaging about 52 points per year. Not bad on a team that, as was established earlier, doesn’t score much. Put him on the Caps or the Ducks, and he’s a 75-point player. He also has some institutional memory that might benefit the Sabres when they start getting back into form and making the playoffs. That because he was with the team in the post-season in both 2010 and 2011.
So what does he look like on the ice? He plays with Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta. The line makes over $13 million bucks, and between them, they’re signed for 13 years. Ennis loops around the attacking zone, ready for passes, the pose of the sniper becoming his whenever he thinks a pass is coming his way. He also kills penalties, and he plays big minutes. Versus LA, he was the top forward, with nearly 22.
So where do they go from here? The Buffalo salary situation in general gives them lots of room to move. They are about 11 million dollars below the cap, which means that they could play for anyone in the league in a free agency deal if they wanted to. Whether any premier player at the height of his game would play for them is another question. Think about it from a lifestyle point of view.
Buffalo gets so much snow it’s paralyzed for significant days in the wintertime. The city itself has a lot of charm, but a few years ago, the mayor paid to demolish 5000 empty homes, saying that if he had the cash, he’d take down at least that many more.
Perhaps the best used bookstore on the planet is there, (Old Editions), but where’s the nearest Ferrari dealer? Toronto, I’m guessing, and how are you going to transport your 458 Italia there for its service, especially in the winter?
So what if you’re a young man with athletic talent and money to burn? You want to live on the Newport Coast, I’m guessing. Or New York City. You probably don’t want to live where people start to worry about the encroachment of winter in the middle of the summer. But in the Sabres’ town you likely would do just that.
So the Sabres offer a new generation of fans some familiar names, and maybe even one or two who might figure in to their long-term history, but as of now, not a lot of hope that anything’s going to turn around anytime soon. Chris Stewart was plain in his assessment, “It’s a big problem. You’ve got to put the puck in the net. We’ve gotta score goals. We’ve been getting the chances, but saying that you’ve been getting the chances, that’s just an excuse. You gotta bear down.”
Do they have the talent to do that? Nolan seems somewhat doubtful. The players are spiraling down, emotionally. And the future seems pretty certain—another high draft pick is likely to head Buffalo’s way later this season.
1972 Summit Series—a high point in Canadian hockey. Read about it in my new book, Coming Down the Mountain: Rethinking the 1972 Summit Series.