A promising start to the season for the Buffalo Sabres has in recent weeks turned sour.
The Sabres had a 10-5 record in their first 15 games, but since Nov. 12 have won only six of their past 17 games, suffering their most humiliating defeat last Saturday, falling 8-3 to the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Penguins.
The summer’s expensive additions of defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr and center Ville Leino have done little to arrest the Sabres’ slide.
Ehrhoff, with 15 points and a minus-8 rating in 32 games, is well off the pace which saw him net 50 points last season with Vancouver.
Regehr was brought in to provide leadership and defensive skill to the Sabres blueline, but in a recent interview appeared as much at a loss to explain the problems as his teammates.
Leino, considered an expensive gamble when inked last summer to a six-year, $4.5 million-per-season contract, had only 10 points in 29 games before succumbing to a lower body injury.
Injuries have been part of the problem, as the Sabres have an unusually high number of regulars currently sidelined.
Leino, Brad Boyes, Tyler Ennis, Patrick Kaleta, Jochen Hecht, Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Myers and Colin Stuart are all out of the lineup, with five of them (Myers, Boyes, Kaleta, Gerbe and Leino) on injured reserve.
Another factor is the poor play of former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Ryan Miller.
His goals-against average (3.12) and save percentage (.902) are his worst numbers since taking over as the Sabres full-time starting netminder in 2005-06 and a far cry from those (2.22. GAA, .929 SP) of his Vezina performance in ’09-10.
Miller also missed eight games to a concussion that was the result of being steamrolled by Boston Bruins left winger Milan Lucic on Nov. 12, when the Sabres’ current slide began.
The Sabres’ lack of response to Lucic’s running of Miller led to gossip he’d “lost” his teammates this season, who appeared to play harder in front of backup Jhonas Enroth. Miller’s teammates admitted they could’ve responded better to the incident, while he insisted they still “had his back.”
Miller also became the subject of trade rumors in late November, when a report in the Edmonton Journal claimed he “wouldn’t mind a trade,” perhaps to a California-based club to be closer to his wife, who’s an actress. He subsequently dismissed the story, claiming he’s never spoken to anyone about a trade.
Miller isn’t the only Sabre whose name cropped up in trade chatter.
Over the weekend, the Toronto Sun reported the talk around Buffalo had center Derek Roy and right winger Drew Stafford on the trade block, while the Edmonton Journal claimed the Sabres had tried to move Roy last year.
Both players have been singled out for criticism for their respective performances this season. Roy has seven goals this season, but only scored twice between Nov. 14 and Dec. 17, while Stafford, a 31-goal scorer last season, is currently on pace for only half that total.
Their respective salaries ($4 million each) make moving either player a difficult proposition.
It could be said the Sabres are tuning out long-time head coach Lindy Ruff and would benefit from a change. Ruff, however, has been on the job since 1997 and has the full confidence of GM Darcy Regier. He won’t be replaced unless ownership decides to clean house in the front office as well as behind the bench.
Despite their woes, the Sabres as of Dec. 20 were eighth overall in the Eastern Conference and with 50 games remaining in their schedule, they have plenty of time to reverse their fortunes. Indeed, they can point to last season, when they overcame a difficult first half to clinch a playoff berth.
To repeat that feat this season, however, the Sabres need to get healthier, struggling stars like Miller, Roy and Stafford must improve and the entire roster needs more teamwork than it has shown in recent weeks.
If this skid continues, the Sabres fall out of playoff contention, which could result in a significant move or two following the lifting of the holiday trade freeze to shake up team chemistry and save their season.