In case anyone forgot the goal, it’s inscribed on a glass plaque a few feet from the dressing room door as a reminder for every player heading toward the ice and anyone entering their locker area. It reads: “Starting today, the reason for the Buffalo Sabres’ existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.” — Terry Pegula, Feb. 22, 2011.
Certainly, you remember the words after Pegula purchased the franchise and established their tangible purpose. Nowhere does it say, “Missing the playoffs three times in five years is acceptable so long as you’re a good guy.” You’re not going to find a sign that reads: “When in doubt, blame injuries.”
The Stanley Cup is every team’s goal, but it’s more attainable when the owner removes all financial restrictions and tells his organization to win a championship. It calls for cold and calculating decisions to be made with Belichickian detachment and giving your team a chance by every means necessary.
Look at the Los Angeles Kings.
Last year, they had a good team that underachieved for various reasons for a good part of the season. They weren’t playing to an accepted standard, so they fired a good coach and a respected man in Terry Murray. Darryl Sutter came aboard, maximized their talent and guided them to the Stanley Cup.
Last week, Lindy Ruff stumbled over softball questions that he normally would handle like belt-high fastballs. He was asked what his standards were for the Sabres. Rather than stand up and insist they make the playoffs, and put his own job on the line, he offered a vague and uninspiring response.
“The standard for us is the level we want to play at and holding each other accountable for it,” Ruff said. “This is the level we want to play, this is the effort that we have to put into it, this is the discipline we need in the game. It comes from your peers. It’s all around you, and that’s the acceptable standard.”
Ruff was reminded that accountability, effort and discipline have become buzzwords in recent years. Translation: shallow rhetoric. He was asked about the playoffs. “Oh, yeah, playoffs, for sure,” he said. And he was asked about ramifications if the Sabres didn’t reach them, widely viewed as the minimum standard.
“I don’t even want to really go there,” he said. “I know what you’re talking about, but I really just want to focus on the positive.”
Ruff has known me long enough to complete half of my questions before I’m finished asking them. I can do the same with many of his answers. Our unspoken familiarity allows us to understand one another through subtleties of our personalities, our job descriptions and the tone of our voices.
So, yes, without me bluntly asking the question, he knew I was talking precisely about him getting fired if the Sabres missed the postseason again.
Ruff has been here for nearly 16 years and has missed the postseason three times in five seasons, six times in 14 seasons. He has said numerous times, usually when explaining his decisions to change forward lines, that he’s not one to bang his head against the wall when things aren’t working. I completely agree with him.
But the same approach applies to him.
Last season, he used injuries as an excuse with uncharacteristic regularity. His message became contagious within the organization and spread to apologists in the community. Injuries were a factor, but to suggest they were the biggest reason the Sabres failed would have been closing your eyes to the obvious.
“It wasn’t all about injuries,” goaltender Ryan Miller said last week. “Definitely, a lot of us were not playing the best hockey we could play. I don’t think we were as sharp as we could be. I don’t think we were playing to our strengths until late in the season. We’ll see what kind of team we are real quick.”
Miller coming clean was one encouraging sign if the Sabres are going to turn things around. Another was hearing Drew Stafford speak of frustration that had boiled over after the Sabres cleaned out their lockers. Out of desperation, during meetings with Ruff and Darcy Regier, they presented their unfiltered opinions.
Stafford was part of a free-speech group that addressed problems that had festered all season. They threw everything on the table. Ruff and Regier did the same. The healthy conversations left everyone involved feeling better afterward. Stafford found the new rules of engagement “a breath of fresh air” and “rejuvenating.”
It sounded liberating.
Frankly, it was about time.
“I’ll put it this way: the communication level is the best it’s been since I’ve been here,” Stafford said. “What happens next, we’ll see. But we’re all on the same page with preparing what we need to do and raising the level of communication and trust in one another. There’s really no elephant in the room anymore. There’s progress.”
Stafford wouldn’t reveal details of the meetings, but it’s safe to assume the elephant in the room was Ruff relentlessly riding his players. Derek Roy was an entirely different animal. He never was the most charming teammate, but he stood up and spoke for many when criticizing Ruff for how he handled his troops.
“We met with our leadership group, and we went through everything — the good, the bad and the ugly,” Ruff said. “We tried to come up with a group solution. We took their input, and they took our input and tried to build for this year.”
The most important aspect of the meetings wasn’t reaching terms of endearment with Ruff and Regier but moving forward with them. Now, with the slate clean, consciences cleared, expectations clarified and Roy gone, it’s time for the Sabres’ new attitude to start producing before the good turns bad and bad turns ugly.
Let’s face it, Ruff and his players need one another. They’re running out of time. If anything, they’re fortunate only Roy was sent packing after last season. Ruff and Regier have beaten incredible odds to keep their jobs this long. Both could have been canned numerous times over the years. If Ruff were running the show and adhered to the same approach he’s had with coaching, he would have fired himself and Regier.
Instead, Regier winds up with a contract extension.
The Sabres aren’t going to turn into a conference contender with a few meetings. They need improvement across the board. Regier made a few moves to stiffen their backbone and adjust their attitude. Steve Ott is a gamer who should help, but to say Regier upgraded the roster would be a stretch.
For the most part, especially after their answer to a lingering problem at center was re-signing Jochen Hecht, the Sabres look the same as they did at the end of last season. Ruff will need to alter his coaching style to keep the Sabres’ collective attention. Several players acknowledged that a large percentage of his team tuned out Ruff last season.
At some point, it was bound to happen.
Looking for a prediction? Try seventh in the conference. That’s assuming they have a strong start and don’t get comfortable. Fifth is possible, but so is 10th.
It’s time for the Sabres to give back a sliver of what they have received from their absurdly loyal fan base. Forget the money. The people here deserve a return on their emotional investment. Too often, they’ve hit the exits feeling as if they spent more time and energy than the team they support.
Only in Buffalo do 10,000 people attend an intrasquad scrimmage and thousands more watch routine practices. Only in Buffalo do a measly 12,000 tickets remain unsold for a season compromised by a third lockout in 18 years. Only in Buffalo do fans wait in long lines to buy jerseys for a team that missed the playoffs three times in five years.
Only in Buffalo can Regier and Ruff survive without a championship, a goal that has been etched into words for a team not always sure whether it’s coming or going.