Disloyal Buffalo sports fans have been making wisecracks about the city being cursed for years. With both the Bills and the Sabres at or near the bottom of their respective leagues, it seems that there may be some validity to those remarks. Everyone knew the Bills would be awful this season, but what happened to the Sabres? What happened to the team that has the No. 1 goalie in the world and the 2010 Rookie of the Year?
What happened is that last year the "core" of the team caught senioritis at the end of the regular season, got knocked out of the playoffs as a result and never took aspirin.
Sabres management failed in constructing this "core" of Ryan Miller, Paul Gaustad, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly. Aside from Miller, this group of players has failed expectations. Gaustad is a role player but has been unnoticeable thus far in the season. Pominville is not the point-per-game player he was when Chris Drury and Daniel Briere led the team to a President's Trophy. While having a resurgence this year, Roy still does not know how to play smart and dump the puck in the offensive zone rather than give it away by trying to make a pretty play. Stafford, Vanek and Connolly are lethargic players uninterested in physical exertion to win hockey games and do not even come through when the team needs it and the opportunity is handed to them on a silver platter.
While the players have not exhibited it lately, this "core" has some talent. But it does not have heart. It was apparent when they were uninterested in saving their season when faced with elimination in the playoffs last year. The players said at the beginning of the season that they matured and were a Cup-contending team. Evidently not. It is possible that they turn their play around enough to make it to the playoffs, but the result will be the same as last year. The NHL is a parity-rich league, with little differences in talent between the teams. In the playoffs, it comes down to who wants it more. It comes down to who wants to fight through the blood, sweat and tears to do something as uncelebrated as wrestle the puck from the opposing team in the corner. Guys without heart will not do this. What could change in the character of the players that would make this year different?
The Sabres' management missed the net in assembling this team, and it will hurt them for years to come. This team needs bona fide stars, like Alexander Ovechkin, who sacrifice for their team, but Vanek, Roy and Pominville are all under contract for this and the next two seasons or more. The Bills are in the position they are in due to bad drafting and trying to make a mediocre team a playoff contender. General Manager Darcy Regier can prevent this from happening to the Sabres by swallowing his pride, admitting he was wrong, blowing up the "core" and starting over. Or maybe he doesn't have the heart either.