By Lenny Palumbo
The best possible thing happened to the Buffalo Sabres at the end of the
NHL's 2011-12 regular season: The team failed to make the playoffs.
Had the Sabres managed to grab the last playoff spot and sneak into the
post-season, team president Ted Black would likely have considered
lifetime appointments for coach Lindy Ruff and General Manager Darcy
After all, he recently gave the longest-tenured duo in professional sports
a vote of confidence despite their overseeing what was arguably the most
humiliating season the franchise ever endured.
Ruff and Regier have been retained by several revolving-door ownership
teams despite their unparalleled legacy of mediocrity and failure. The
pair will enter their 15th and 16th seasons, respectively, with the Sabres
next year, and have absolutely nothing to show for it.
The Sabres have missed the postseason six times in 10 years and have not
won a playoff series for five consecutive seasons.
Across the league, Ruff and Regier's teams have been called everything
from "soft" and "mentally fragile" to just plain "gutless." The fact that
no one in the organization seems to be troubled by these unflattering
observations on their manhood indicates that, despite owner Terry Pegula's
declared commitment to win the Stanley Cup, his tenure is more likely
destined to be a classic case of one step forward, two steps back.
Ruff and Regier's best seasons occurred in their first two years with the
team, but those Sabres clubs were built by former GM John Muckler and
coach Ted Nolan. Does anyone remember the dismissal of NHL Executive of
the Year, Muckler, and NHL Coach of the Year, Nolan, back in 1997 at the
conclusion of the organization's best season in over a decade?
The Sabres have yet to recover from that act of self-mutilation, and the
results speak for themselves: Once the Muckler/Nolan teams were dismantled
by Ruff and Regier, they managed to win only five playoff series in 13
For this lack of accomplishment they have become the longest-tenured
coach/GM tandem in professional sports. Only in Buffalo.
Traditional, winning hockey it is not...
These photos of Derek Roy (Top) and Nathan Gerbe (Bottom), with their pouty, unnatural poses, leave one wondering if they are hockey players or male, hairstyle models.
Those who believe that the once-proud Sabres organization has hit rock
bottom cite the perception around the league that not only some, but all
of Buffalo's players are not just "soft" and "mentally fragile" but
"gutless." An article published on the New England Sports Network's
website rubbed salt in the wounds days after Boston's Milan Lucic
concussed goalie Ryan Miller with a cheap shot to the head. The incident,
which violated one of hockey's most forbidden taboos against hitting
goaltenders, provoked no response from the Sabres, but did elicit a
decidedly disparaging one from NESN sportswriter Douglas Flynn. Within the
title of his article he sums up the prevailing view around the league:
"Sabres' lack of a response was truly gutless."
NESN's Flynn wrote, "Actually, gutless would be a better description for
the utter lack of response from the Sabres to the sight of their goalie
laid out violently. Lucic was called for charging, but faced no other
repercussions for the hit. Despite violating one of hockey's most
vigorously enforced unwritten rules to avoid hitting the goalie, Lucic
faced absolutely no retaliation from the Sabres. The lack of response was
startling, and the Bruins took full advantage of the knowledge that they
were facing a foe easily intimidated by their physical style."
But he didn't stop there. Flynn accused the Sabres on the ice at the time
of the hit, Paul Gaustad, Tyler Myers, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and
Andrej Sekera, of "cowardice."
When asked if the response from the Bruins would have been different if
Boston goalie Tim Thomas had been hit, Lucic did not mince words:
""Definitely. We wouldn't accept anything like that. We would have taken
care of business, but we're a different team than they are."
They sure are. The Bruins are defending Stanley Cup champions and the
Sabres are watching the playoffs on TV while they get their nails done at
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Buffalo Sabres: No guts, no
pride, no playoffs. It's as simple as that.
The Miller-Lucic incident was arguably the catalyst of the Sabres' playoff
fortunes. Miller missed three weeks because of the hit, and his return in
early December coincided with the club's notorious tailspin that
permanently derailed the season. From Dec. 17 to Jan. 24, Buffalo set a
franchise record by losing 12 straight road games. The Sabres scored only
17 goals during this stretch and finished with just 90 goals total on the
road, ranking 27th in the league out of 30 teams.
Particularly disturbing is the fact that the incident between Miller and
Lucic was not the first between the Sabres and Bruins in which Boston used
intimidation and violence to injure and demoralize Buffalo's "soft" and
Despite finishing first in the Northeast in 2009-10, the Sabres were
knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the Bruins. Boston
adopted a strategy long ago perfected by NHL legend Conn Smythe, who
famously said, "If you can beat 'em in the alley, you can beat 'em on the
ice." Bruin bruisers Milan Lucic, Sean Thornton and Zdeno Chara manhandled
undersized and passive Sabres like Jason Pominville, Tim Connelly and
Derek Roy, and took control of the series after Thomas Vanek was slashed
across the ankle in Game No. 2. Vanek was playing his best hockey of the
season, but missed the rest of that game and the next two, all of which
the Sabres lost. There was no response from the team except perhaps a
whimper and some tears. The Bruins easily won the series.
The following season Boston would win its first Stanley Cup in nearly 40
One would think Boston's obvious strategy for success, an admixture of
skill, toughness and fine goaltending, might have caught the attention of
Sabres' shot-callers. Unfortunately, those in charge persist in their
inexplicable commitment to cowardly and passive playing and its inevitable
consequence in the tough and brawny world of hockey: failure.
At the trade deadline, rough-and-tumble rookie Zack Kassian, just the kind
of player the team should be attempting to acquire, was dealt to Vancouver
for Tim Connelly-clone Cody Hodgson. Management's preference for
effeminate, undersized pretty boys has made Buffalo the laughingstock of
the league and helpless whipping boys for teams that field strong men on
the ice. One can go to the Ice Capades for fancy skating. Fans throughout
the league love to see robust rugged men fight on the ice for dominance.
Somewhere along the way, a change in philosophy was made within the Sabres
organization to abandon the blue-collar blueprint that had come to
epitomize Sabres teams of the past. The glory years of the 1970s saw the
considerable talents of the French Connection complemented by tough guys
Jim Schoenfeld, Jerry "King Kong" Korab and Wildman Rick Dudley. Those
teams easily neutralized Philadelphia's notorious "Broad Street Bullies"
in the 1975 Finals, despite failing to grab the cup. Similarly, Ted
Nolan's clubs, which paved the way for the 1999 "No Goal" Stanley Cup
Finals, were a tough bunch (Ray, May, Barnaby, Boughner) that stood up for
each other and took on all comers. Unfortunately, the present roster
consists predominately of carefully quaffed timid boys who would rather
perform center-ice pirouettes than get their noses dirty in the corners or
muss up their hair. The lunch pails and work boots that once sat in
lockers have been replaced by blow-dryers and skin creams.
Pegula's tenure has been distinguishable from that of his predecessors by
his willingness to spend money on quality players. But giving the
hopelessly incompetent Regier a "blank check" has only exacerbated the
problem. By any reasonable assessment, Regier's key acquisitions (Leino,
Ehrhoff, Regehr) were all colossal busts. Centerman Leino managed just 8
goals and 25 points, and defenseman Ehrhoff was equally uninspired. Regier
finished the season with the second-worst plus/minus (-12) on the team and
clearly left his manhood on the west coast.
With former president Larry Quinn finally out of the picture, one would
have thought now to be the perfect time to make a clean break with the
past and begin the Pegula era in Buffalo with some fresh faces and fresh
thinking. Unfortunately, such was not the case, and now another
disappointing season of failure and humiliation is in the books. Worse yet
is that another one looms on the horizon.
Are the Sabres and Bills really cursed, as many fans in Western New York
have come to believe? The inauspicious beginning to the Pegula era in
Buffalo only lends credence to the theory. Unfortunately, his inexplicable
commitment to the most overrated coach/GM combo in the history of hockey
and the most pathetic collection of scaredy-pants players the game has
ever seen means things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||May 1 2012|