The Buffalo Sabres knew life without star centres Daniel Briere and Chris Drury would be less appealing, but they didn’t think a 5-7-1 start was in the cards.
There’s still way too much talent on last year’s President’s Trophy winners to be under the .500 mark five weeks into the NHL season. “It’s endless what this team can do with the amount of talent that’s here,” said starting goalie Ryan Miller. “But it’s being able to work together, and we’ve been missing that a little bit.”
Miller gets annoyed when for the thousandth time he’s asked how deeply the losses of Briere and Drury have been felt.
“It’s a built-in excuse for us and I don’t like it,” said Miller. “I’ve been trying to speak out against it. Listen, I loved playing with those guys – two great players and two great leaders. But they’re not here.
“Every guy in this locker-room with the exception of very few guys has been to the conference final twice, has been part of a team that’s won hockey games, and knows what it takes to win.”
Briere and Drury may not be as missed on the ice as they are off of it.
They were co-captains of the team, after all. But the Sabres insist they’ve got plenty of leadership left on the club.
“To tell you the truth, neither one of those guys were very vocal leaders,” said veteran forward Adam Mair. “They both were guys that led by example on the ice. I think we still have a core group of guys that were here over the last few years that have been relied on in the past to provide leadership. I don’t really feel like that’s an issue.”
Head coach Lindy Ruff also downplays any leadership void left behind by Briere and Drury.
“That would be another excuse that I don’t buy into,” said Ruff. “We lost some good people. Every team loses good players, that’s part of the game now. We have a lot of good character and good leadership people.
“There’s nobody running and hiding. To a man they’ll all say we need to pick it up. And that’s the stuff you want to here. It’s going to be 20 guys that pull out of it.”
Many of the same players are back but they’re not playing like the slick and cohesive unit that terrorized opponents with an NHL-leading 298 goals last season.
They’re still scoring goals but their overall game has been at times spotty. It’s not the same well-oiled machine from last season at this point.
“We just haven’t been consistent,” said forward Jochen Hecht. “We play good for 40 minutes and then we fall apart for 20 minutes and the other team scores two or three goals.”
They’re not used to losing, either. It took until Dec. 19 last season to register their seventh loss in regulation. That’s already in the books.
They’ve been shut out twice already this season after not being blanked once over 82 games last season.
“I don’t know if we quite understand how hard it is to win night in and night out,” said Mair, who injured his right ankle in Monday night’s 2-0 loss at Montreal. “We were blessed with such an offensive juggernaut last year that at times it seemed easy. If you can’t put up those goals night in and night out you got to win from other areas.
“Like I said, that’s just being better in the system, playing harder, and being more dedicated.”
Playing with a lead would help. The Sabres have given up the first goal in 10 of their 13 games this season, which immediately puts pressure on them to open it up in an effort to come back.
That can lead to defensive breakdowns and missed assignments.
“There’s times where our defence has looked average, which has hurt us, there’s times our goaltending has looked average, which has hurt us, and sometimes our forwards haven’t played very well, which makes us look average,” said Ruff. “It really is a league where you have to have everything firing because it’s tough to rely on one area for too long.”
Hecht says the Sabres remain confident.
“We’ve got talent and we’ve got a good team,” he said. “It’s just a matter of being more consistent.”