Sabres Showing Signs of Locker Room Turmoil

The theme of the Buffalo Sabres 2016-17 season has been inconsistency. You don’t know what team you’re getting from night to night. Will it be the club that wins a big game in Toronto to get back into the playoff discussion? Will it be the team that falls flat the following night against Vancouver that spoils a glorious opportunity to gain in the standings? Are the Sabres the team that scores three goals in the first period against the Leafs or scores three in three minutes to tie the Sharks in the third period? Perhaps the real team is the one that is outscored 62-40 in the second period.

Ok, I think you get the point. The script all season has been for the Sabres to get themselves to the brink of being in the playoff conversation and then fail to show up when it matters. The inconsistent play has been maddening and has been difficult to figure out the primary reason why the team cannot get over the top.

Continuous Letdowns

Several times throughout the season I can think of games where the Sabres have had the chance to prove that they deserve to be taken seriously when it comes to being a playoff contender. The struggles could be a young team learning to win important games as a group. It would make sense as the Sabres entered the season with one of the younger teams at an average age of 26.2. The big names on the roster like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen are all the age of 22 years old or younger. That excuse could certainly pass after the first few times. However, after the fifth, sixth or for that matter seventh disappointing showing in a big game you have to search for something beyond just a team learning to win.

It’s not even disappointing anymore, starting to get angry – Robin Lehner

The frustration of the inability to gain two points when it matters most has made its way into the Sabres dressing room. Twice this past week the Sabres won big games and appeared to have the momentum heading into the following contest. Last Tuesday night they had a thrilling comeback win against a very good San Jose Sharks team and instead of carrying that over against an Anaheim Ducks team that lost three straight, they fell short losing 5-2 at home. Over the weekend they grabbed momentum again with perhaps their biggest win of the season against the Leafs in Toronto. The struggling Vancouver Canucks entered Key Bank Center last night and outplayed the Sabres for a 4-2 victory.

After the Canucks game veteran, Kyle Okposo showed his frustration with the team’s letdowns. He said, “we try to ride some momentum and go up and lay an egg, it gets old.” They know the mistakes they’re making because it’s the same ones over and over again that put them behind the ball. For example, the second-period struggles have been a constant throughout the season. The club has had meetings and talked about ways to fix the issues, but it’s not happening.

We talk about it, but we don’t execute – Tyler Ennis

Disrespecting the Game

Buffalo Sabres, NHL Draft
(Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)

Well, thanks primarily to the post game comments of Lehner on Sunday night, we might have been given a glimpse into why they’ve struggled to string wins together. The Sabres starting goaltender didn’t pull any punches after Sunday’s loss discussing what he felt was holding the team back. He talked about some players who are unwilling to buy into the plan set forth by the coaches night and night out saying, “I think it’s disrespectful when we have a gameplan…coach is coming up with a good game plan…we do the exact opposite.” He went on to say the team needs to “start listening to our coach and starting to respect this team and respecting our coach.”

Lehner’s comments are interesting when the coaching methods of Dan Bylsma have been a topic for fans this season. Part of a coach’s job is to get through to his players and get them to buy into the system that he’s implemented. If Bylsma is unable to get his team to completely buy into his methods then it doesn’t make sense for him to be the bench boss going forward for this team. The noise of Bylsma having some trouble in the dressing room dates back to last season when the Sabres got off to a slow start. Rumors were coming out that he was disliked by some of the players, however after the team played at a 94 point pace the second half of the season, that went away. Now, here we are again.

It’s not disrespectful to me, it’s disrespectful to the game – Dan Bylsma

Sense of Entitlement

Not all the blame falls at the feet of Bylsma. A good chunk of the blame with this turmoil falls on the shoulder of the players within that room. Lehner hit the nail on the head describing how some of the players are at fault for what is going on by not buying in. Guys are not playing within in the system and doing things how they want to do it. As Lehner put it “get it out of our zone? No. Let’s do the fancy thing…we haven’t done anything in this league.” He went on to say “we gotta stop thinking after winning a game, we’re Chicago or Boston.”

Those last two quotes from the outspoken goaltender bring up a serious concern about some of the players in the room. Lehner is absolutely correct in saying that the team hasn’t accomplished anything at the NHL level. The franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2011 and the chances of them breaking that streak are very slim. In fact, the organization is only two years removed from one of the worst seasons in league history. Any player in that room who has a sense of entitlement or believes they can get full of themselves after one good night is an issue.

Nothing is handed to you in the NHL regardless of where you were drafted or your status in the league. Teams and players have to earn credibility through winning hockey games and championships. A young core tuning out a coach who has won a Stanley Cup because they believe they know better is not a good sign for general manager Tim Murray and the team he’s assembled.

Lehner summed it up best saying “reality is going to come real quick if we can’t figure it out.” Next season is a big year for Murray and the organization as a whole. The final 26 games of this season should go a long way in determining how Murray should approach the offseason. He needs to know if he has the right coach in place and the correct core in place that is ready to take over this team from players like Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges. The club needs to take a long look in the mirror and find a solution to a problem that has the potential to explode.