by PuckStopsHere on 02/02/12 at 05:01 PM ET
Last season the Buffalo Sabres finished in the seventh seed in the East Conference with a 43-39 record with 10 regulation tie points. Many thought they looked like a team ready to make a big step toward being a solid Stanley Cup contender when new owner Terry Pegula opened the purse strings and signed free agents Christian Ehrhoff to a ten year contract worth a total of $40 million (which pays him $10 million this year) and Ville Leino to a six year contract worth $27 million. That hasn’t been the case.
Buffalo is currently fourth from last in the East Conference with only 21 wins in 51 games played. So what went wrong?
The easy answer is that the Sabres overpaid for their new signings. We knew that when Ehrhoff and Leino were signed, but it is more obvious now. Leino has been limited to four goals and twelve points so far this year. Ehrhoff has scored a little higher from defence, but his -9 +/- rating is among the worst on the team.
The lesson to learn from this is that ownership should not interfere with management. Darcy Regier was doing a fine job before he got hamstrung with two large lengthy contracts at management insistence. That is not to say Buffalo could not have added some higher priced free agents successfully but the way management did it hasn’t worked.
That however is no reason that Buffalo should have dropped as far in the standings as they have. They have seen their offence drop by about 0.6 goals per game while their defence has allowed about 0.2 more goals per game. The defensive issues are mostly due to goaltending issues. Ryan Miller is not having a strong year. The former Vezina Trophy winner is posting a 2.89 GAA and a .904 saves percentage. These are the worst numbers of his NHL career. I think Miller is overrated because of the publicity he got from his Vezina Trophy winning season being in the 2010 Olympic year, thus making him the high profile starting goalie on the US Olympic Team. That season was a career year above his established norms. However it is reasonable to expect his play should improve above its current levels this season.
The most troubling problem is Buffalo’s offence. Last year it was relatively deep with six players (Thomas Vanek, Brad Boyes, Drew Stafford, Jason Pominville, Tyler Ennis and Tim Connolly) scoring more than 40 points. Derek Roy also added 35 points in 35 games before his season ended to injury. This season only Vanek and Pominville are on pace to score more than 40 points. Connolly is in Toronto. Stafford, Boyes, Ennis and Roy are all failing to reach last season’s numbers. None of the new players have stepped up either. Tyler Ennis has had it the worst of the supposed Buffalo scorers. He has been limited to only five points in 17 games so far this season.
Buffalo has had the bad luck of several players playing below established levels at the same time with nobody stepping up to take up the slack. This happens sometimes and is a problem that should fix itself. In time some of the players will return to their expected levels. The free agent contracts Terry Pegula brought in have not worked out either. This is a problem that will hurt the Sabres into the future but it is not the main reason for their current problems. Owner’s interference is a problem but it shouldn’t have knocked the Sabres this far off the pace. Likely they will pick things up a bit in the second half of the year but the playoffs are likely too lofty a goal.
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