Much has been made about the Sabres' 11'-12' season. It was perceived to be their best one since 06'-07'. Except in that year, the Sabres exceeded expectations. They won The President's Trophy, making them the best team in the league, according to the score sheet. Columnists, bloggers, and other media folks alike had correctly predicted a certain degree of dominance by the Blue and Gold. The Sabres had returning stars Chris Drury and Danny Briere as a premier scoring duo, along with the extremely talented Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Derek Roy as a very powerful second line of scoring. Adding to that, the roster was complimented with quality scoring talents in Drew Stafford, Max Afinogenov, Clarke MacArthur, Tim Connolly, and Jochen Hecht. Ryan Miller was just beginning to show that he was an elite top 5 goalie in the league. Our defensive core was strong to say the least, led by Brian Campbell and Teppo Numminen. We were a fantastic team, on paper and on the ice. We came very close to the cup that year, and with a lot of bad luck and injuries, we were knocked out. We had a great season, just like everyone said we would.
Times have changed since that year. The Sabres have been an above average team since letting their TWO best players in Drury and Briere walk. Ever since letting them go, this team has been trying to establish a new identity. We had been consumed in status quo mediocrity for years, until new owner Terry Pegula came in and promised to spend as much money as possible to bring the team back to the top. But money doesn't always buy success. Perennial spenders, like the Flames, Leafs, Canucks, Canadiens, and Penguins were either knocked out of the first round of the playoffs, or didn't even make them. Toronto hasn't been to the playoffs in 8 years. Then you look at teams like the Coyotes, the Blues, and the Panthers. Teams that sometimes need help in reaching the cap FLOOR. Coyotes make it to the finals, Panthers make their first playoff appearance in 12 years, and the Blues go into the playoffs as one of the top teams in the league. It's less about money and more about how the coaches USE their talent. The Blues and Panthers had new coaches this year, and they stunned the league. Phoenix, with coach Tippett, went all the way to the conference finals with a 40 year old as their highest scorer. Of course, money can certainly lure attractive free agents with plenty of skill. But if that skill doesn't mesh with the chemistry of your team, you're going to have one huge albatross contract on your books for years to come.
The 2011-12 season brought huge contracts, huge expectations, new ownership, and plenty of fans ready to escape the hole of average and excel into the elite group of teams into the league, and get to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in five years. After 82 games, what was expected of this team and what actually happened couldn't be more far apart. Huge new contracts under performed along with the rest of the team, almost every player on the team was injured for some period of time, and once again, we finished just short of a playoff spot. With an unheard of amount of injuries, and a giant mid season losing streak, the team couldn't dig itself out of the massive hole it dug itself. At one point, the Sabres reached last place in the conference by the time the all star break came around. Morale was at an all time low. There was no motivation, no passion on the ice. The city of Buffalo was screaming for GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff to be replaced. Although the team went on a fantastic run to finish the season, they still finished in 9th, one spot short of a playoff spot. Darcy made some great trades at the deadline to bring in a young gifted center and Cody Hodgson, and a very under rated, simple and steady defenseman in Alex Sulzer. Trading Gaustad for a first round pick was ingenious in itself. No one believed it could be done, yet Darcy pulled it off.
To avoid the cliff this year, some changes of the core should be made, and even though Terry Pegula has said many times he won't have his coach fired, I think it should be heavily considered. He's been here since 1997-98, and our core of players has been around since 2005, minus Drury and Briere. Roy, Pommer, Stafford, Hecht, and the recently traded Gaustad have been here too long as a group, and need to be split, starting with Derek Roy. We need a coach who can properly utilize the talents on this team and not use guys like Brad Boyes as a fourth line center, and Jochen Hecht as a first line center. Coaching changes did wonders this year alone for teams that include New Jersey (cup finalist), Los Angeles (cup winner), Florida (first playoff berth ever), St Louis (complete turnaround from last year), and Ottawa (see St Louis). Changes don't always work, like with Washington (essentially stayed the same), Toronto (got worse), and Anaheim, who actually did better but dug a hole too deep to escape. Maybe it's time for Buffalo to follow the same course of action, and bring in a new coach to more properly utilize the talents on this team like Phoenix, St Louis, Florida, Ottawa, and all the other discussed franchises have done. Maybe guys like Ville Leino can play up to his enormous 4.5 mil contract, or Vanek can score more than 60 points a season like he's paid to do. And hopefully if we do sign a few free agents on July 1st, we spend our money more wisely. My next blogs will cover the draft of 2012, and the free agent market and how Buffalo can make some crafty pickups.