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Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Will new voice get Sabres into postseason?

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

Burnside: Craig, big news out of Buffalo, as the longest-tenured coach in the NHL, Lindy Ruff, finally had the clock run out on him. Can’t say it was all that surprising given how poorly the Sabres have played this season and, frankly, it’s been a long time -- dare I say 2007? -- since this team has been a legitimate contender. Since those back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007, the Sabres have missed the playoffs three times and been bounced twice in the first round. For me, the most disappointing moment was in 2011 when they had a banged-up Flyers team on the ropes in the first round and couldn’t close the deal, losing in Game 7. So, is that a coaching issue or a personnel issue? When you’ve got one of the best goaltenders in the game in Ryan Miller, the results should be better, but it still doesn’t address the question: Are the Sabres’ repeated failures connected to needing a new voice, or new people in the jersey? Guess we’ll start to find out as Ron Rolston, coach of Rochester's AHL team, was named interim head coach.

I have often lamented from afar that this remains a team without a strong leadership core. There’s no Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Brian Campbell or Jay McKee, all of whom were central to those strong Sabres teams. Can a new coach coax more leadership out of guys like Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe? What’s your first reaction to this move?

Custance: My first reaction was surprise, which is strange because we’ve been debating whether or not the move should happen for a while now. It’s kind of like David Poile firing Barry Trotz -- it just didn’t seem possible. But there’s pressure on general manager Darcy Regier to win and it hasn’t been happening in Buffalo. Terry Pegula came in and immediately started talking about winning Stanley Cups. That’s where the bar has been set in Buffalo. I’m with you -- I’m not sure the coach is the problem -- but now we find out. When you look at the Sabres right now, they’re getting the usual strong goaltending from Miller. They’re getting offensive production up front from guys like Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Cody Hodgson. Vanek has been unreal for most of the season. Defensively, there are some issues, and it’s hard to identify if it’s because of personnel or coaching. Tyler Myers appears to have regressed, which is a major problem since he’s making $12 million (!) in actual salary this season. Jordan Leopold was a healthy scratch. There’s a lot of money invested in that defense and it hasn’t come with a real payoff. Is there a coach available to fix that?

Burnside: Well I think you noted on Twitter right after the news broke Wednesday afternoon that Dallas Eakins and Jon Cooper, who coach the top farm teams for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively, would be the top candidates for a permanent job if the Sabres are looking to go that route. It will be interesting to see how those teams -- both in the same conference and, in the case of the Leafs, the same division -- would allow an in-season move or whether both would require the Sabres to wait to the end of the season. Last year, the Nashville Predators allowed Kirk Muller to take the Carolinahead coaching job even though they’d just hired him to coach their AHL team in Milwaukee. That was a different dynamic though.

As for the Sabres themselves, you’ve touched on some key personnel issues. Would a new coach help Myers get back on track? Or was that the kind of personnel mistake made at the GM level that will cripple the club for years? Same with the Ville Leino signing. I guess if you’re Regier you hope a new coach can help turn what appear to be egregious mistakes into positive assets. I have to believe that, unless Regier can catch lightning in a bottle and see his team improve dramatically in the short term and make the playoffs, we’ll be talking about another key opening on the Sabres' staff the moment this season ends.

Custance: Which is probably fair. Pegula has opened his checkbook and expects results. If I’m him, I’m not sure I’m letting Regier make a long-term coaching hire at this point. That's why I like the move to promote Rolston on an interim basis from Rochester. According to a couple reports from Toronto, Eakins doesn’t have an out until after this season. So by doing that, you’re opening up more options. But yeah, I think both Eakins and Cooper will be NHL coaches by this time next season, and it’d be smart for Buffalo to consider getting the jump on one of them. I agree that Regier’s track record in free agency has been suspect, but you have to appreciate the trades he made last season, acquiring Hodgson from the Canucks and getting a first-rounder for Paul Gaustad. Maybe that’s the next move? Try and shake things up through a trade. There are certainly enough general managers looking to add defense if the Sabres want to make changes there. Buffalo is currently four points outside a playoff spot and has been known to make a run late in the regular season. You think this sparks them back into the playoff conversation?

Burnside: Maybe the Sabres have a surplus of defensemen because they don’t have many who play it all that well, or who haven’t played it all that well under Ruff. The team ranks 26th in goals allowed per game. Not sure what kind of return you’re going to get for players that Regier might be looking at moving, or maybe it’s just the act of moving someone. Just as this is about the act of "doing something" on the part of Regier. This isn’t to downplay the emotion that must have gone into this. Regier and Ruff have spent the better part of two decades together trying to build a winner in Buffalo. Hard to make that call. But I still don’t see anything there to suggest that whoever’s behind the bench makes enough of a difference to get this team back to the postseason. The good news is that it’s the Eastern Conference and it’s filled with mediocre teams, and good teams like Ottawa are crippled by injuries, so maybe this is all the Sabres need. What do you think, do we see them come the last week of April or not?

Custance: My playoff locks in the East are Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Boston, the Rangers and whoever wins the Southeast. That leaves plenty of room for the Sabres to make a run. The problem is that there are four teams in front of them before you get into the top eight, and it’s hard to make up ground when all you’re playing are teams in the Eastern Conference. I’m not ruling out the playoffs for Buffalo, but the Sabres have their work cut out.