Tuesday January 31st, 2012

Ville Leino (23), who was given a fat six-year contract and has produced only three goals and eight assists, is one of the posterboys for a Sabres season filled with deep slumps, injuries and big disappointment. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

By Stu Hackel

One of the NHL's biggest mysteries this season, the collapse of the Buffalo Sabres, could result in some big changes. It doesn't appear as if the jobs of GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff are in jeopardy, but some players may soon be on the move.

That was the strong hit delivered by Sabres President Ted Black during  All-Star Weekend when he told John Vogl of The Buffalo News that while he supported the work of the team's hockey department, "Our commitment is to winning, not to any particular group of players that are labeled as a core. Take that for what it's worth."

We'll take that to mean that the Sabres will be sellers at, or prior to, the trade deadline.

This was going to be the Sabres' year, or at least the start of something special. New owner Terry Pegula -- a hockey guy with money -- had raised expectations that the club was going to compete for the Stanley Cup, not just this season, but for years to come. He authorized Regier to chase talent last offseason and Regier complied. But it hasn't worked out.

"The Sabres finished the regular season last year 16-4-4 and probably should have beaten goaltending-challenged Philadelphia in the playoffs," writes Mike Harrington in The Buffalo News. "So who would have thought swapping Tim Connolly, Steve Montador, Chris Butler, Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer and Patrick Lalime for Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, Robyn Regehr, Jhonas Enroth and full years from Derek Roy, Luke Adam and Marc-Andre Gragnani would have been such a bad deal?

"Sure looked good on paper. Sure looks terrible on the ice. Not a single two-game winning streak since early November. How is that possible?"

"Guys are just on pace to have career-low years in key categories such as goals," Black told Vogl. "If you had a team that had Lemieux, Gretzky, Orr and Howe, and imported their worst statistical years, you'd probably have a team that wasn't going to make the playoffs. There's no slight to those great players, the fact is every player has a career-best year, and every player has a career-worst year."

Perhaps that's stretching things, considering that the worst years of those great players were at the very end of their careers. You can't say that about the current Sabres. They are largely at or near their primes. But they are slumping, especially recently.

The Sabres have fallen to 14th in the Eastern Conference by managing only four wins and two regulation ties in their last 18 games. That's 10 of a possible 36 points. They've scored only 15 goals in their last 10 games.

In looking at who’s hot and who’s not, apart from Jason Pominville, the entire forward corps would be listed under who’s not. Tomas Vanek has no points in six games. Derek Roy has none in five. Drew Stafford has one point in 10. Nathan Gerbe has three points in 10. Gerbe and Brad Boyes each have one goal in the last 26. Luke Adam has no points in the last 17, and one goal in the last 23. Antagonist Patrick Kaleta has three points in 16.

Ville Leino, one of Buffalo's offseason pickups, has one point in the 10 games since he's been back from an injury and one goal in his last 23. He's got three goals, eight assists for the entire campaign and is Exhibit A when it comes to misjudging a player. With only one respectable season on his hockey card (2009-10 for the Flyers, including a strong postseason), he was signed by the Sabres for six years and $27 million and moved to center by Ruff, although he had played his best as a winger. Leino back there now, but not producing regardless.

The defense corps, which Regier targeted for upgrading, has not been able to contain opposing forwards. Robyn Regehr, who was a shutdown specialist in Calgary and hasn’t been a minus player since 2002-03, is minus-13. Ehrhoff, who was a plus-19 for Vancouver last season, is on pace to be minus-19. He had 50 points for the Canucks, but has only 17 now.

Regehr and Ehrhoff are not alone in underperforming on the blue line. Big Tyler Myers has declined since his Calder Trophy rookie season two years ago. He had 48 points then, he's got 10 now.

But the most obvious disappointment has been the play of Ryan Miller. Two years ago, he was the game's top goalie. This season, he's not even an afterthought. His 3.09 goal-against  average and .899 save percentage are very un-Miller-like.

Miller actually began the season strong, with a 1.68 GAA and .946 save pct. through his first six starts. But he soon lost his sharpness and Ruff inserted backup Enroth a few times to give Miller some rest. Miller was then freight-trained by Boston's Milan Lucic in one of the season's most infamous moments (which we chronicled here, here and here). While Miller suffered a concussion and neck injury, controversy swirled around the team as to whether it was tough enough, especially when no Sabre challenged Lucic or sought to retaliate against Boston's goalie Tim Thomas. "It's the turning point of the season (the team was 10-5 at the time) and the defining moment for this group," writes Harrington.

Combined with injuries elsewhere in the lineup, the Sabres began to stagger. After a three-week layoff, Miller was even less sharp when he resumed playing. He's allowed three or more goals in 13 of his 19 games since returning, only twice limiting opponents to a single goal, including his last outing before the All-Star break -- a shootout win over New Jersey, perhaps his best game since his injury.

Miller said on Monday that he had identified some flaws in his game before the break, but there's little doubt that it's probably too late. "The players will say otherwise because they have to, but it's clear the playoffs should not even be in the thoughts of a club that's 14th in the Eastern Conference and actually tied for last," writes Harrington. "The eye test shows a 10-point deficit and five teams to climb over, an arduous task."

So where will this all lead?

Harrington believes that "Virtually any franchise in any sport would have jettisoned both coach and GM by now. But Pegula loves Ruff. The jury on Regier may be out until after we see what he does at the deadline. So if the coach or GM are staying, doesn't that mean that a bunch of the players have to be leaving?"

Trade deadline rumors are bound to swirl. Roy's name has surfaced frequently, although he's reportedly been playing with a wonky shoulder. Miller's name has come up too, although a player with his resume might fetch more during the offseason than at the deadline. And it's hard to imagine the Sabres parting with the goalie who has been such a big part of their identity for the past six seasons.

Regardless, the rumors will only distract a group that is trying to right itself. And it's all near-term stuff. In the long term, ownership and management have to determine if all these players are indeed suffering one-year blips or if the club needs a major overhaul. But right now, things look pretty dark in the great hockey town on the edge of Lake Erie.

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