Playoffs or no, Sabres still have long way to go

April, 18, 2013
4/18/13
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Ryan Miller of the Buffalo SabresJim Rogash/Getty ImagesEven with Ryan Miller's effort in net, the Buffalo Sabres' future remains in limbo.
BOSTON -- We will take nothing away from the Buffalo Sabres after they flat-out stole two points with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

Out-shot by a wide margin, out-chanced by an even greater amount, and looking lost for long periods of time, the Sabres still somehow managed to sneak by the Northeast Division-leading Bruins, tying things after Boston took a late delay-of-game penalty and with netminder Ryan Miller on the bench for an extra attacker.

So no, we will not deny that the Sabres, winners of three in a row, are still mathematically alive in the hunt for a postseason berth, Wednesday’s victory pulling them to within two points of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Sabres have only four games remaining in the season. They must leap over two teams to get to the playoffs. The New York Rangers, in eighth, have two games in hand. The Winnipeg Jets have one. They also lag far behind in the tie-breaker (regulation and overtime wins).

So yes, this is a team technically alive, even though most have counted the Sabres out for quite some time.

“I think all year they’ve done that,” offered Cody Hodgson, who scored the tying goal for the Sabres with 27 seconds left in regulation. “But we keep hanging around."

Good on the Sabres -- those who remained after GM Darcy Regier sent captain Jason Pominville to Minnesota and veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr, who was supposed to be a big part of the Sabres' rise to glory, to Los Angeles at the trade deadline -- if they pull off the miracle run to the postseason.

But the fact remains games like this forestall the inevitable, and that is an offseason that looms as one of the most important in franchise history.

Not bad enough to ensnare a Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane or Seth Jones with a top draft pick. Not good enough to be playing when it really counts.

The curse of the eternally gray; not quite in hockey hell, nowhere near puck heaven.

There are two ways this can go for the Sabres.

Either owner Terry Pegula follows up the firing of longtime coach Lindy Ruff earlier this season and replaces Regier, hoping to change what has become a culture of mediocrity, or he keeps Regier -- the longest-serving GM in the NHL right now -- hoping against hope that history does not continue to repeat itself.

In spite of Wednesday’s improbable win -- one in which they were out-shot 43-32 and could muster little in the way of scoring chances in spite of a four-minute power play in the third period -- the Sabres appear destined to miss the playoffs for a second straight season. After qualifying for the Eastern Conference final two years in a row following the previous lockout (2006, 2007) the Sabres have not won a single playoff round since.

Regier recently acknowledged to veteran Buffalo News beat writer John Vogl after trading Pominville and Regehr that the team didn’t have the proper foundation in place. Team officials have acknowledged the team has never fully recovered from the loss of co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, who were catalysts to the successes in 2006 and 2007; both walked away as free agents even though they wanted to remain in Buffalo.

[+] EnlargeChris Drury and Daniel Briere
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesThe days of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere are long-gone in Buffalo.
That the team has never fully addressed the leadership drain that started with the unnecessary loss of those two franchise players is mind-boggling. Second, if the foundation isn’t in place in Buffalo after all this time, what is in place, exactly?

On Wednesday in the second period, Bruins forward Tyler Seguin blasted around defenseman Christian Ehrhoff like the $8 million player was rooted in the ice, and only the stone-cold hand of Milan Lucic prevented the play from ending in a Boston goal.

Later, Ehrhoff -- who is under contract until 2020-21 with a $4 million annual cap hit -- lost control of Chris Kelly, who scored the Bruins’ second goal late in the second period.

The team’s other "anchor" defenseman, Tyler Myers, is out with a broken leg, but after earning rookie of the year honors in 2010 and collecting a $10 million bonus last summer, Myers has regressed in his evolution. He will make an average of $5.5 million a season until 2018-19.

This isn’t to suggest these players don’t care.

Of course they do.

“Obviously, [I'm] disappointed with the way things have gone here,” Ehrhoff told ESPN.com before Wednesday’s game.

“I had different expectations when I signed here two years ago,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one.

But if the Sabres will have to live with Ehrhoff and Myers and Ville Leino, who was signed to a six-year deal worth $27 million before the 2011-12 season, how does this team redefine itself as anything other than being a wasteland of bad contracts?

More to the point, if Regier does return and he is determined not to see more assets walk out the door without gaining something in return (a la Drury and Briere), does it not stand that trading netminder Miller -- who was the best player on the ice for the Sabres by a country mile Wednesday -- and Thomas Vanek becomes the top priority this summer?

Even if Regier was interested in re-signing both key players before they hit unrestricted free agency in July 2014, what suggests they would want to return to a team whose prospects for a quick turnaround under current management seem dim?

The team’s plight was brought into sharp focus Wednesday, and not because of the action on the ice. If you looked up in the stands Wednesday morning at TD Garden, there was Boston president and Hall of Famer Cam Neely watching his Bruins at the morning skate.

Cam Neely
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesLike Cam Neely in Boston, a local hockey icon could help Buffalo's future.
Along with GM Peter Chiarelli, the two have created a dynamic tandem that has brought about a renaissance in the Original Six city. The two have helped redefine the Bruins’ identity and won a Cup along the way.

Is such a renaissance possible in Buffalo?

It wouldn’t be easy, but look at the changes being brought to bear in Montreal by new GM Marc Bergevin and his new staff, including possible Jack Adams finalist Michel Therrien. Or in Columbus, where president John Davidson, one of the most respected men in hockey, and new GM Jarmo Kekalainen have the Blue Jackets fighting for a surprise playoff berth.

Is there someone that could fill such a role for the Sabres at the top?

What about the guy who once had 148 points for the team, Pat LaFontaine, who remains a vibrant force in the hockey world?

Wouldn’t someone like LaFontaine and a hungry new GM almost have the potential to alter the hockey culture in a town hungry for change?

Would they not create the kind of identity that has been lacking in Buffalo since those two seasons after the previous lockout?

More to the point: Isn’t it time to find out?

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