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Quick Take – Perspectives

04/08/13
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Last night a team that’s struggled all season* played against a team that’s been struggling lately. Both clubs were short their top scorer, both clubs were without last year’s captain (granted, one had gone all season* that way while the other traded theirs away 4 days prior), and both clubs are fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot.

The Sabres won. It was their third straight victory, albeit not in regulation and thus giving up some ground to New Jersey. But a win hasn’t felt quite right in some time.

You can’t argue with logic. The Sabres might not be mathematically out of playoff contention, but at this point that’s a matter of time, barring a miraculous collapse of other teams in the conference. To quote Ryan Lambert:

They are in 12th place, six points behind the eighth-place New York Islanders with one fewer game played.” Well no I mean they’re out, though. Like, not mathematically, but they’re out. Obviously.

That stings. But it’s true. But with this shortened season* and with the terrible, awful, no good, very bad start that this team came out with it also isn’t surprising. This is the season where Lindy Ruff was fired. The captain, Jason Pominville, got shipped off to Minnesota for a boatload of futures. Ville Leino, who has 6 points in 8 games and looked dynamite in every one of them, is constantly shelved with injury. Thomas Vanek, the team’s perpetual leading scorer, is out yet again because they keep having to play him at 80% health which means he keeps getting hurt. Three of the season’s* starting defensemen have been traded away, including the two most senior members of the core. In fact, every single defenseman still on the team is under 30 years old, except for their best defender.

Drew Stafford has been atrocious, but we all know that by now. He’s been scratched, he’s been repeatedly demoted to the 4th line, and (as Dave Davis reports) this team tried to ship him to Columbus (damn you, Gaborik). I know I’ve been all over Stafford so much that I tried giving up ripping on him for Lent, not as a joke, but because I thought it was legitimately making me a more negative person. So I’m writing this as much as a reminder for me as anything else.

As Trending Buffalo points out, they are also the youngest team in the NHL.

Darcy Regier did as we demanded. He sold at the deadline, he tried to deal Stafford, and he has stocked up on picks. He’s referred to the picks as “currency”, which leans towards the idea that he is going to move more people in the off-season. Nobody knows if it’s going to be Miller or Vanek or Gerbe or Ennis or Stafford, but it’s going to happen.

The deadline moves, like the Stafford contract two years ago, were “good enough”. And this fan base is more than tired of “good enough”.

People have brought up that infamous tweet several times, but there’s everybody’s favorite Sabre laying it out in plain English. He’s not telling you not to boo, just as I would never dream of doing so, because you bought your ticket. Just as Steve Ott isn’t that hot on the idea of “tanking” the season or “losing out”, and instead explains the attitude that has brought this team its recent success:

[W]e’ve got guys vying for jobs for next year, we’ve got guys in here that need contracts for next year, we’ve got guys in here possibly looking at extensions so you look at all those aspects, there’s no give up on this team. We’ve got 11 games for everyone to play their heart out and see where everything lies at the end of it all.

That’s what we want, right? That’s a marrow and sinew, blue collar, working class attitude that you build a team around, isn’t it? If every player on this team had Ott’s intensity, had his attitude, had his…Lord help me, I’ll even say it…had his grit, then this season would look very different. But my question in all this is what Steve Ott is going to think next season, as he approaches unrestricted free agency and the talk of contract extensions.

It’s your money, it’s your ticket, it’s your blog or your Twitter feed or your phone call…you boo who you want and you talk about tanking the season for a top 3 pick. I absolutely defend your right to do so, if that’s how you want to spend your effort. I just ask a single question…who exactly are you booing or who are you hoping will tank?

The 2012 Buffalo Sabres are dead, friends. The “new-old core” is gone. What started with the jettison of Lydman/Tallinder/Connolly/Gaustad/Roy has been followed through with Pominville/Leopold/Regehr/Stafford/Vanek. Oh, those last two? One of them has been scratched and has been on the 4th line, his influence over hockey games all but deteriorated to nothing…he was one Gaborik away from becoming a Blue Jacket. Vanek, meanwhile, is out with injury and the team continues to win. Hell, we’re already chalking Vanek, Stafford, and Miller as “gone” in the off-season.

The core of this team is Ehrhoff, Ott, and then a bunch of third liners and 23 year-old’s. Any fan worth their salt knows that Christian Ehrhoff is by far the best defender on the team (Corsi, advanced stats, yadda yadda), and we love Steve Ott. The rest of the guys weren’t good enough to crack the NHL lineup to start the season. Kevin Porter, Luke “Back from the Dead” Adam, the un-drafted Brian Flynn, Adam Pardy, Mark Pysyk…those are the guys that are hearing the boo’s and I legitimately wonder what else you could want from them. Pat Kaleta takes a slap shot to the ribs every other shift, scores a goal, and sees his under-talented or not-yet-matured teammates receive boo’s for being legitimately outclassed. Then they still won.

Boo all you want. But why are you booing? Are you booing because 23-year-old Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis are not yet dynamic two-way top line centers? Are you booing because the Porter line got pinned in their own zone, couldn’t get it out, and ended up taking a penalty after two minutes? Or are you booing because Tyler Myers isn’t playing like an elite defender. Or because Drew Stafford is still on the team and isn’t languishing in Ohio. Because the entirety of the 2012 Sabres aren’t yet dead, despite how well the 2013 Sabres are playing. Because they have gone 6-2-2 and “fell” to 7th in the draft order. Because they are about as likely to get a top 3 pick as they are to get in to the playoffs.

One thing’s for sure. You can’t possibly be booing the effort of the under-skilled players that comprise roughly 1/3 of this team. There’s no way you could be upset that a team that lost 1/3 of its defense core, and its two most veteran defenders, as well as its captain at the trade deadline, and who are playing without their leading scorer, and who are playing without their best puck-possessing forward (Leino)…is winning. They’re winning despite the fact that they shouldn’t be, because they are outclassed, under-sized, under-skilled, and underdogs. But now, on top of that, they’re winning despite the fact that many feel it is actually tactically unwise. They’re winning when they should be tanking for a top 3 pick.

It’s never enough.

Do as you wish. It’s your money, it’s your effort. Boo them, hope they lose out and land a top 3 pick, hope that they trade away their best players and start from scratch. Then let’s all wonder why free agents need to be paid more money to be enticed to play for this team. Wonder why Jordan Leopold goes to St. Louis and criticizes the atmosphere in the locker room (if you don’t believe fan pressure has an effect on the locker room attitude you would be surprised). Above all, wonder why Thomas Vanek doesn’t want to be part of a long-term rebuilding. It’s not just because he wants to win, he also wants to be somewhere that welcomes the effort.

Philadelphia fans are widely regarded as the “worst” when it comes to booing and hating their own players. But from an outside observer’s perspective, they honestly only boo poor effort. Philly fans get on players when they make horrible decisions, but they only really let loose when it’s obvious the effort isn’t there. They’ll eat you alive if you are talented and dogging it, or if you quit. That’s the worst…if a player quits.

If you’re booing Drew Stafford or Tyler Myers, I get it. They can be better. You want to hope that they’ll reach into their bag of tricks and put in some serious work to start displaying their talent, because wasted talent drives fans up the wall. But with players like Brian Flynn, Luke Adam, Cody Hodgson, and Mike Weber approaching restricted free agency this summer…I have to wonder if they’re going to want to come play for this fan base again. Weber likely will want to, since he and Steve Ott are close friends, but that’s not a guarantee…remember that Mike Grier and Chris Drury were extremely close friends, and Grier took his leave in 2006 because he “didn’t like were the team was headed”. Drury left the next off-season.

I’m sitting here hoping that Weber does not think the same way. He looks to his left, he sees rebuilding. He looks to his right, he sees a fan base that’s going to boo despite effort and pray for a lost season in order to land a draft pick. If Weber holds out for arbitration or for an offer sheet from another team, and if he’s gone, what does Steve Ott do in the summer of 2014?

Obviously it’s wild speculation for speculation’s sake. Boo all you want. Hope the season tanks for a top 3 pick. Just…from somewhat outside the bubble, from a person living 450 miles away who watches games online and keeps track of the team via Twitter, blog posts, and comments…it’s not just looking like mere frustration over there. The team is starting to do well, and despite the fact that I know fans are supportive, it’s starting to look like Philly. Except, as I said, Philly fans appreciate the effort.

I don’t know. Maybe trying to be positive about Stafford during Lent has actually helped disillusion me into being more positive, to the point of naivete. Or maybe I’m looking at this team through a particular filter, with a particular perspective, where fan support looks worse than it actually is.

…or maybe they just need more half off merch days at The Sabres Store.

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