Fifteen years ago I would be freaking out about the Sabres recent spate of injuries. But I guess there's just something about pushing 40 that makes you realize there's more important things in life than worrying about the respective fates of charmed 20-somethings.
Or maybe it's just that I can barely bring myself to care much about sports these days after realizing that I'm now too old to play pro hockey even if I were once good enough (which I wasn't).
Whatever the case, there's a certain amount of satisfaction that comes with my newfound sobriety towards the Buffalo Sabres (however depressing its genesis may be). Whereas I was unable to approach my Sabres analysis with little more than unbridled emotion back in the day, I now find myself capable of applying the same type of rationality that I bring to virtually any other situation. (Okay, most of the time.. fuck off.)
Like every other Sabres fan, I've had a long time to assess and digest the abilities of Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier. A looooong time. These guys are clearly two of the best in their field at what they do. They're both Grade A talents with A-Class character. I don't think that's ever really been in question. One thing that is in question, however, is whether these guys are the right men for the job in Buffalo.
After all these years together, Ruff and Regier might as well literally be joined at the hip. Regier is not going to fire Ruff. If Ruff ever goes, Regier will be going with him. Regier will never fire his best friend. Never. You just don't do that sort of thing, and as a man I can at least respect that.
I'd be willing to bet it's Ruff and Regier's relationship over the past dozen years that's been the primary cause of most of the good that's come to the Sabres organization during that span, nearly all of which probably goes unseen by the fans and in some cases even ownership. Building trust between employer and employee is crucial to performance; treating subordinates as peers often breeds respect. However, too much trust can lead to complacency. And if you're not careful, being too friendly with your players can extinguish respect for authority. You get the idea. Every benefit has a cost.
And so it is with the injury bug.
As I think we've all written a couple times, I don't like the team's reliance on all the injuries as the reason for its poor record the past few weeks. If anything, it's primarily the roster players who have made untimely decisions that have cost the Sabres wins. That said, Ruff has done a good job managing the lineup and lines during a stretch that no coach would ever want to endure. Although hardly tough decisions, he has rewarded Kassian for his outstanding play with increased ice time, and he's also made the right call in keeping Brayden McNabb in Buffalo despite Mike Weber's return to the lineup. Similarly, the fantastic play of guys like Kassian, McNabb, Tropp, and Brennan -- especially given their NHL inexperience -- is a testament to Regier's ability to draft and develop top talent. These two guys will have jobs in the NHL as long as they want them.
Ironically, however, we're nevertheless left to wonder why the Sabres play so inconsistently night in and night out. (This is not unique to the Sabres, but not every coach enjoys a 13-year tenure with one club either.) Why they refuse to finish checks unless they feel like it. Why Thomas Vanek, Cody McCormick, and Pat Kaleta have trouble finding teammates who will actually bust their asses every goddamned shift like they do. Why a system that has lost effectiveness after taking teams by surprise six years ago seemingly hasn't adapted even though the rest of the league has caught on to the secret. Why a power play has, on balance, buh-lown! for years. These are the responsibilities of the coach. Ruff has undeniably done very good things with subpar NHL talent over the years -- if we're to believe Regier's hands were tied under Golisano and Quinn, that is -- so I don't question his ability to coach; I question why he has not gotten better results considering he's had the luxury of knowing his team better than anyone save perhaps for Barry Trotz.
That said, even more interesting amid all these injuries is the Darcy Regier situation. Will GMDR finally move assets before they've overstayed their welcome now that we almost unquestionably know that the kids on the farm can play and perform? The silver lining to the injury bug is that Regier now knows (or should know) he has the luxury of dumping salary to gain cap space while simultaneously improving the team. (I know, right!!) Does anyone even remember Brad Boyes? Zack Kassian not only outperforms him right now, he costs over three million a year less. (Oh, and he kind of resembles that nasty Milan Lucic guy, who I would love to have on my team.) Corey Tropp is going to be awesome, so Regier could likely shop Kaleta right now before his propensity for injuries renders him damaged goods. Finally, even though Jochen Hecht brings intangibles and leadership, you can't tell me Szczechura isn't an even swap offensively if Hecht and his four million could be packaged to land one more big gun up front. By the way, we've still got Marcus Foligno in Rochester.
And I know Buffalo can never seem to have enough defensemen, but right now we have Ehrhoff, Myers, Leopold, Sekera, Gragnani, Regehr, Weber, and McNabb with Brennan, Finley, and Schiestel in the immediate pipeline. Seriously, there is no reason teams even score on us, much less any reason our D can't put the puck in the net every effing game. We have an imbalance of offensive defensemen already with more ready for promotion, so there's at least two that can be moved tomorrow. Myers-McNabb can be Niedermayer-Pronger in a few years, but anyone else is fair game. I think Sekera would look good in Ranger blue.
The tragic irony here is whether you actually want Darcy Regier at the controls when it comes to making decisions that will impact the team for years ahead. Ted Black should have his hands full right now, but if there's one thing that has to change for Regier to keep his job, he has to learn to cut his homegrown players loose. He won't fire Ruff, but if he refuses to acknowledge the opportunities before him and act now, we will have substantive proof that our addiction to untimely injuries is nothing compared to our deep-seated disease that is a complacent GM.