After coming out of the gates with a pair of wins, the Buffalo Sabres have stumbled through the last two weeks with only two win in their last nine resulting in a 4-6-1 record and 14th place in the conference. But what has gone so wrong so quickly for the Sabres and how can it be addressed?
Depleted blue line
One of the strengths, on paper, heading into the season was the Buffalo Sabres blue line. A solid top six of Tyler Myers, Robyn Regehr, Andrej Sekera, Christian Ehrhoff an Alexander Sulzer, along with depth defenders Mike Weber, TJ Brennan and Adam Pardy made it seem like the team was set to go. However, just in the last two weeks, Regehr has been placed on injury reserve with a lower body issue, Sekera has been questionable with a bruised left ankle and Ehrhoff was saddled with a muscle strain.
While there is no way to fix the injuries to the team’s top six, the remaining starters and fill-ins need to step up their game. Myers has been anything but the leader from the back end. He has simply lacked the intensity needed and has been caught making poor decisions. On Feb. 5 against the Senators, Myers lost a race to the puck in his own zone, which he had the jump on, it led to the fourth goal of the game and the game-winner.
Weber too has looked unsure with the puck and delayed in his decision-making. Also, in that Senators game, he panicked and shuffled the puck to Cody Hodgson who had nowhere to go, leading to the Senators second goal. More concerning is that the unit is not clearing out the traffic in front of the net. Many of the shots Ryan Miller and Jonas Enroth are facing are screens giving them little chance.
While you cannot teach or fix reactions, the blue liners can work on the high-pressure situations and improve on their decision-making. They need to get the reps in during practice so that it becomes automatic during the game. Clearing the front of the net needs to be a top priority for the blue liners. They need to give Ryan Miller, and Jonas Enroth, when he is in, a chance to see the shot, because when they see the shots they should make the save.
The next glaring issue the Sabres have is their dreadful woes in the faceoff circles. As a team they are the worst in the NHL winning just 42.5 per cent of their face offs. Here are just some of the face off percentages on the team: Steve Ott is at 51.6 per cent, Hodgson is at 42.7 per cent, Tyler Ennis at 40.7 per cent, Jochen Hecht at 35.8, Mikhail Grigorenko at 38.9 per cent. The team’s first line center, Hodgson has also lost the third most face offs in the league, 121.
The numbers are one thing, but for anyone who has watched a Sabres game, they know that it is the timing of these losses that hurt the most. When the game has been on the line late, Hodgson is usually out there and has simply not come up for the team. Compound that with the fact that losing face offs in their own end have led to goals, see Chris Phillips’ goal on Feb. 5.
It would seem pretty self explanatory, but repetition in practice is the only way to fix this problem. The team could also try different centers and different players in various situations. If all else fails the team could be on the market for a faceoff specialist either through a trade or free agency.
The biggest issue for the team has to be the lack of secondary scoring. The team, and poolies everywhere, have to be thrilled with the actual point production of their top trio of Thomas Vanek (21 points), Jason Pomminville (14 points) and Hodgson (10 points). However, after the top three, there was a drop off, until Ennis’ three point game, Feb. 7 against Montreal. Ennis has turned things around in the last few games with six points in his last five, but he has been inconsistent. Drew Stafford is still without a goal through 11 games, Nathan Gerbe, in limited ice time since returning from injury, is pointless and Grigorenko who the Sabres thought would better serve the organization in Buffalo than back in junior with Quebec City, has a goal and assist, but no points since being told he would remain with the club. Also, Ville Leino’s hip injury may keep him out for the entire season.
Unfortunately, there is no repetition drill that these players can do to get the puck to go in. In these cases, generally players tend to be trying too hard and it becomes mental. They just have to continue to work hard and get a garbage goal that helps spark production. If they cannot, it would seem that once again the Sabres might need to explore the trade route if they hope to improve this area. ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun spoke to Sabres General Manager, Darcy Regier, on Feb. 7, who acknowledged that he had been inquiring about what is available from other teams.
In both cases it could be harder to find something on the trade market because so many teams are still in the mix in the conference standings. At the same time, with 10 games in the books, the Sabres cannot afford to fall any further behind. With three-point games, jumping from 14th up to eighth will be no easy task.
While the above areas may give some Sabres fans reason to hit the big red panic button, all is certainly not lost. Through 11 games the Sabres do have arguable one of the best lines in the league this season. Now if Vanek, Pomminville and Hodgson do stop producing then yes hit the button.
Also despite some criticism it might be too early to turn on the goaltending. Numbers don’t always tell the entire story, Miller has been very good in a number of games and the type of goals against have been high quality. As for Enroth, people need to remember it is not easy coming in every week and a half or so and to play like an everyday starter. He hasn’t been lights out, but he hasn’t been awful.
Finally, injuries are a part of the game, as we saw when looking at the defense. These guys will come back and it will be interesting to see if the struggles continue with a healthy squad.