BUFFALO, N.Y. – It’s going to take more than a monthlong slump and a growing heap of criticism to shake Larry Quinn’s confidence in the suddenly spiralling Buffalo Sabres.
Quinn, the team’s managing partner, was both defiant and upbeat during a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. He had no time for excuses, blame or regret over questionable personnel decisions, injuries, and plain bad luck that have contributed to the Sabres’ free-fall – from first overall a year ago to the NHL’s near-worst.
“It’s been a tough stretch, and there’s no hiding that,” Quinn said. “But like I said to everybody, ‘We got here together and we’re going to get out of it together.’ And that’s all we can really do.”
The Sabres, who play at Dallas on Thursday, are 1-7-5 in their past 13 games. At 20-21-7 overall, Buffalo is tied with Toronto for 27th in the league standings, and the Sabres are one loss short of matching last year’s total.
Quinn insisted this was not a time for panic or second-guessing.
“No, the sky isn’t falling,” he said. “And I know that a lot of people will seem to think that’s probably foolish to say on my part.”
The “people” Quinn referred to was a way of acknowledging his critics. They are the ones blaming both Quinn and owner Tom Golisano for dismantling the core of a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in each of the past two seasons and won a league-best 105 games over that stretch.
The Sabres’ troubles can be traced to their failure to re-sign co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, who left on the first day of free agency in July. The Sabres lost both players despite having several opportunities to re-sign them to long-term deals – and contracts that could have fit the team’s salary structure – a year earlier.
Besides losing their two unquestioned leaders, the Sabres also lost two top-line centres who combined to score 69 of the team’s league-leading 298 goals (not including shootout victories) last season. Offensive consistency is mostly what the Sabres have been missing this year, particularly during their recent slump.
Buffalo has managed 30 goals in its past 13 games, including a 10-1 win over Atlanta last week.
Quinn refused to pin the team’s woes on missing Drury and Briere.
“I don’t think that’s what it is at all,” he said. “And I don’t want to speculate about anything other than the fact that our confidence level is high with this group. We haven’t accomplished what we want to, but we’re going to.”
Quinn noted the Sabres went through a similar mid-season slump during the 2003-04 season, when they last missed the playoffs. With much of the same lineup, Buffalo bounced back to become one of the best teams in the two seasons following the NHL lockout.
This group of Sabres, led by goaltender Ryan Miller and third-year forward Thomas Vanek, still hasn’t found an identity. And Vanek is struggling in particular, having produced 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points – a tremendous drop after last year, when he scored a Sabres-leading 43 goals and finished second on the team with 84 points.
Quinn refused to look back.
“Any time you’re in this business, you can always look back at a multitude of things and say, ‘I wished this would’ve worked out differently. I wish I had done that,”‘ he said. “But that’s not the business we’re in. We’re in the business where we make decisions the day you’re in them, and you live with them and you look forward. And that’s what we’re doing here.”
That doesn’t make it easy on Sabres’ fans, whose loyalty made the franchise one of the NHL’s most marketable over the past three seasons.
“The only thing you do for fans is win hockey games,” Quinn said, when asked what assurances he could provide. “Anything else is just a lot of talk. And I don’t want to say it. They don’t want to hear it.”