Sabres’ problems have no easy solution

Another Buffalo Sabres game, another loss. This team is getting more and more frustrating to watch.

We’ve lost five of six and haven’t won consecutive games since early November. Scoring is down, everyone’s hurt, goaltending is suspect, special teams are brutal and fans are calling for Terry Pegula to start handing out pink slips. What’s more concerning is there doesn’t seem to be a quick fix for the Sabres’ problems.

We could score more, and sure, picking up someone in front would be nice, but there’s no single thing the players can do differently tomorrow that will turn the season around.

There’s nothing we can do about injuries. The only way we’re going to get key players back is to wait, but time isn’t something we have a whole lot of. It’s nearly Christmas and we’re currently on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.

Tyler Myers and Brad Boyes weren’t setting the league on fire before getting hurt, but it looks as if even having them at eighty percent was better than not having them at all. The Rochester replacements really haven’t played that bad, but life is different as a call-up.

You don’t show up in the NHL expecting to rack up the points and put the team on your back. A good day for a newbie is not messing up. Surviving. If you play well enough to not get sent right back down, your day was relatively successful.

Surviving isn’t enough for the regulars. They need to produce. While Zack Kassian and Myers have produced the same amount of points this season (six), we’re saying “Hey, pretty good job from Kassian” and “Man, we really need more from Myers,” even though they gave us the same thing. It feels like our rookies are playing well, but comparing it with the production it takes from regulars to win in the NHL is one reason why the Sabres are struggling — and there’s no easy way to fix it.

Goaltending also needs improvement. Ryan Miller is not playing at the level of a good NHL goalie, let alone anyway near the level he’s getting paid for. Jhonas Enroth, though less criticized, is in a bit of a slump as well. Both goalies have appeared in the same amount of games, with nearly equal results: Miller is 8-7-2 and Enroth is 8-7-1 (that’s best explained in baseball terms … even though they may have been credited with an appearance, they don’t necessarily get a decision).

Twenty-four goalies in the league post a better goals against average than Enroth’s 2.54, and his is more than a half-goal better than Miller’s (3.12, 37th). Enroth also has a better save percentage (.918 to .904), but Miller is the “proven” guy with a contract almost ten times as large.

"Bad goalie! Bad!"

How do you tell a goalie to play better? I kind of wish Lindy would hit Miller on the nose and yell “Bad goalie!” from the bench every time he got scored on, but I don’t think that would do it. He might be going down a little bit early, but Miller doesn’t seem to have have any major technical flaws that shooters are exploiting. He insists he’s free of concussion symptoms, so all that’s left is the mental aspect. Dominik Hasek took it personally when he got beat, but for a more introverted goalie like Miller, maybe he needs some time to get his head right. (Hey Millsy, do that thing you used to do when you sit in the stands with your stick seven hours before a game and look into space. That was cool.)

But goaltending wasn’t the problem against Toronto or Ottawa. Miller was fun to watch against Toronto, especially in the first period where he made several nice save. Miller turned away 35 shots and held the Senators to one goal in the first 48 minutes against Ottawa. The team didn’t play well in its own end either night and was held to two goals or less for the sixth and seventh times in the last 30 days.

One way to help the goalies out is to pick up bodies in front of the net. The Sabres are getting beat for a lot of second chance goals lately and while defensive zone coverage won’t put goals on the board, it will help keep them off it.

I wrote last week how Robyn Regehr, Andrej Sekera and the rest of the Sabres need to lose their puck focus and find a man. Four games and 19 goals later, the team is still having the same problem.

We’re picking on Mike Weber from Tuesday’s game in Ottawa, but after going minus-8 in his first seven games played, he has it coming.

Weber got beat by Chris Neal, of all people, for a home run pass through the neutral zone that led to the Senators’ first goal.

Here are shots about two seconds apart. In the first one, Neal has just slipped past Weber. Zack Smith, a few strides past the red line, is underlined.

There’s no excuse for getting beat like that, but it happens. You put your head down and try as hard as you can to catch the guy, and if you can’t do that, either make sure you clear the rebound and tie up the trailer.

Weber doesn’t do any of those. He coasts back to the net and lets Smith fly right past past him, as shown in the second frame. Smith has gone untouched from the middle of the neutral zone to the hashmarks in the same amount of time that Weber, who should be madder than anyone, went from inside the blue line to the top of the circles. Miller stops the initial shot (because it’s Chris Neal), but when Jordan Leopold can’t clear the rebound, Smith gets a backhand on the loose puck and knocks it past Miller.

Ottawa’s second goal was scored on a rebound and the third goal came on the power play when Jason Pominville didn’t pick up the man coming in from the point. Scoring goals is still a problem, but tightening up defensive zone coverage goes a long way for a hockey team.

After that, there’s not much left a coach can do. Lindy could get in guys’ faces and tell them they need to stop playing like a bunch of sallies, but that’s not his style. The Sabres have plenty of hockey left before the New Year with four games the week after Christmas, but they better figure things out soon, before fans and Eastern Conference teams leave them behind.

Sabres offseason assessment

A 40th consecutive Stanley Cup-less season in Buffalo can only mean one thing: the team has several areas it can address in free agency, which opens this Friday, July 1.

The timely scoring and stout defensive zone coverage that propelled the Sabres from 14th to 7th in the Eastern Conference standings fell apart in a first-round playoff collapse to Philadelphia. The defense showed its youth and the offense underperformed.

Darcy Regier, Terry Pegula & Co. are already on their way to fixing those problems. They made an addition to the Buffalo blue line this weekend, receiving veteran Robyn Regehr in trade with Calgary that also brought back Ales Kotalik in exchange for Chris Butler and prospect Paul Byron. While he is known for his defensive abilities, at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Regehr also brings a physical presence to the Sabres defense that it has desperately needed the last several seasons.

Darcy says he sees hope for Kotalik’s NHL career, but the rest of us aren’t so sure. The Sabres still have several personnel decisions to make, so let’s take a look at what players the team has under contract.

 Several things should jump out at you:

  • We need a top-level center to play on line 1 or 2.
  • After the Regehr trade, we still only have four defensemen signed; three if you count ones who actually play something resembling defense.
  • We need to sign a backup goalie.
  • There is a ton of money invested in lines 3 and 4.

Center

The first thing I’ll address is the center. I’m ready to part ways with Tim Connolly. He does provide some value to the team, especially as a penalty killer, but it’s time to move on. Connolly has been a member of the Sabres longer than any other player on the roster, but it’s time to pass the torch down to Jochen Hecht and make way for a more productive player.

Letting Connolly walk leaves a hole on the second line, but I think that spot may be best for Derek Roy. He’s certainly a fan favorite, but I’m not as high on him as most other people are. He takes a lot of bad penalties and he doesn’t produce like a top NHL center. His career-best 32 goals in 2007-08 put him just 20th in the league. Bottom line is I wouldn’t pick a team to win the Cup with Derek Roy as its top center.

However, there is only one player in free agency who could dethrone Roy as the best centerman on the team, and that’s Brad Richards. Richards has reached 91 points twice in his career and is the best forward to be an unrestricted free agent on Friday, but also the most expensive. The last five seasons, his cap hit has been $7.8 million. Buffalo can afford a salary in that range, but they will have to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.

The rest of the UFA class seems a little pricey for the expected production, especially because it is made up of a lot of older players in their late 30s. Ville Leino (27) is a younger player on the list that has some value, but he seems likely to return to the Flyers.

The restricted free agent side offers more talent but many of those players, like Steven Stamkos and Zach Parise, are rumored to be resigning with their current teams. One player down the RFA list a little ways that I do like is St. Louis young gun T.J. Oshie, who could be a nice fill-in on the second line — that is if he doesn’t resign with the Blues.

Defense

The Regehr move helps clean things up on the defensive end, but there’s still some clutter to be sorted out. The easiest thing to say, now that Butler is gone, is just resign them all. Steve Montador isn’t bad and Andrej Sekera has some real potential. Mike Weber is okay for now and he can battle it out with Marc-Andre Gragnani for the last spot in the lineup.

The only real issue is Shaone Morrisonn. The man only managed five points in 62 games this year and seemed perplexed by defensive zone assignments. Morrisonn averaged 16:10 in ice time per game — seventh among Buffalo defensemen. The only thing he had going for him was not being worse than Craig Rivet, but even that ended for him midway during the year. He doesn’t play on the power play and he occasionally kills penalties. You really hope to get a lot more out of a $2 million player.

The Sabres could do nothing and hope he finds his game, or they can waive him down to the AHL and just eat his cap hit (helps having a rich owner). It’d be nice if we could find someone to take him, but other teams have good scouting departments, too.

Resigning everyone is the easiest scenario, but there are good free agents out there if Darcy is still looking to add depth on the back end, which is never a bad idea. I really liked how Kevin Bieksa played for Vancouver in the playoffs, and he’ll be a UFA, but I have a feeling every other GM in the league also saw the playoffs and would like Bieksa on his team, too. His current deal was worth $3.75 million, but after a strong playoff performance that number will go way up. He probably signs back with Vancouver, but if not look for him to go to a team with deep pockets. With one $4 million defenseman already added, I don’t see the Sabres going out and signing an even more expensive player.

James Wisniewski and Ian White are younger, mid-priced defensmen who will be UFAs, if those names interest you.  I was interested in Christian Ehroff before he forgot how to play hockey during the Western Conference playoffs. All are in the $3 million range, but even that may be too high for the Sabres to spend. Shea Weber and Drew Doughty are big name RFAs, and while I’d love to have either of them, their going rates will likely be too high for Buffalo.

I’m interested to see how Gragnani develops. He has work to do still, but he led the Sabres in postseason scoring and that didn’t happen on accident. The kid is an offensive threat and could be our next power play quarterback. I don’t know how much that means for him right away this season, but if I’m in charge Gragnani gets a legitimate shot to make the team straight out of camp.

Backup goalie

Easy. Patrick Lalime can go play bar league somewhere while Jhonas Enroth signs a nice little deal. If Enroth plays his cards right he could probably get over $1 million just on the potential he’s shown. If not I bet someone else would give it to him. From the Sabres’ perspective, holding on to him for trade bait is another good reason. Ryan Miller is in the prime of his career and will play 60-some odd games. I’ve seen nothing but good things from Enroth, but Miller may be the best goalie in the league — in the world — on a consistent basis. Maybe we sent Enroth somewhere in a deadline deal over the next few years and pick up a scorer.

Lines 3 and 4

This is a real problem. I slid Kotalik in for Cody McCormick on the fourth line so his $3 million inflates the numbers, but it still should make Darcy weary. I liked what Brad Boyes did at the end of the regular season and Hecht is a core member of the team who provides leadership for the younger guys while playing a more limited role.

The problem is that when you add in what Nathan Gerbe will likely get — they better resign Gerbe — you end up with a third line that costs $8.5 million. That’s not how winning hockey teams operate. You need bargain players at the bottom who over-perform their small contracts so you have money at the top for your stars. Why pay guys that much to play 15-17 minutes a game when you could develop a younger guy for a fraction of the cost? (Zack Kassian, maybe? I can dream…)

Paul Gaustad has one year left on his $2.3 million deal, but that’s a way too much to pay a fourth-liner. Kaleta and McCorick could both be making under a million on the fourth line. That’s a typical fourth-line, grind-it-out type of guy. He can win faceoffs? That’ll be good to put on his resume this time next year while he’s packing up his house. One of the top centermen will take the defensive-zone faceoffs, not the fourth line.

Then there’s Kotalik. This one is an enigma, I tell you. $3 million is a lot to pay a guy to score in shootouts. I don’t know what the plan is here.

Other thoughts:

  • Mike Grier often gets forgotten. He may retire, but I like having him around. He’s welcome back on my team, just not for $1.5 mil.
  • See Tyler Myers on that chart? He has one year left at $1.3 million. How much do you think he’ll be worth as an RFA next summer? I’d try to work out an extension with him now. He’s good for it.
  • I’m excited to have Rochester back as the Sabres’ farm team. I’ve never paid to go to an Amerks game, but following a team 70 miles away and having your prospects there is much better than having them 500 miles away in Portland. It’s just better for business.
  • NHL draft was last weekend, and it has almost nothing in common with the NFL draft. The Sabres did pretty good… we think. Check back in six years.
  • I played an old NHL video game during the draft because, aside from the players’ sisters, it was kind of boring after round one. I played as the Sabres. My first thought after turning off the game: Man I really don’t miss Kotalik at all. Spoke too soon.
  • The NHL and NFL schedules are out… The Bills play the Jets on Nov. 6 and Sabres play the Jets on Nov. 8. That has to be the closest streak in all of sports, right?
  • Want to do some searching for yourself? Check out capgeek.com for more.