The Buffalo Sabres played hard on Monday against the Dallas Stars but ended on the losing side again, leaving an angry crowd asking for GM Darcy Regier's head and a lot of questions regarding the future of the team this season, writes Elliotte Friedman.
Confession: I have a soft spot for Buffalo.
Growing up in Toronto, your American television channels are based here. I loved the old Eyewitness News theme, followed by iconic anchor Irv Weinstein. I loved "Sabre Dance" at the start of every Channel 2 broadcast, with the legendary Ted Darling emphasizing the "Box" in "Van Boxmeer" every time the defenceman did anything remotely interesting.
During university, there would be a trip or two every season to the now-demolished "Aud," the Sabres' rocking old-school home. (A friend of ours in another car once laughed at us for not parking in a closer spot that was covered by a bridge. We laughed after the game when he discovered why: the bridge was full of bird nests. Tough explaining his soiled car to the border guards).
Anyway, I have some understanding and appreciation for this blue-collar city and its sports fans. Scouts and opposing teams say they've rarely seen anything like what's been happening at the team's home games so far in 2013-14.
"That is one angry crowd," an opposing executive said.
We've all heard about the "Fire Darcy" chants, but that's not the only example. The press box setup at First Niagara Center allows for some interaction between the crowd and media/scouts/employees. One scout told a story of two fans demanding to know if he worked for the Sabres, accusing him of lying when he said no.
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier can handle the taunts. But a couple of executives from other teams raised some interesting points about Buffalo's young players: it's an awful environment for them to get better.
"Buffalo fans expect an honest effort," Regier said in the first intermission of Monday's 4-3 loss to Dallas. "If you work hard, even in difficult times, they will respect that... What they saw at the beginning of the year was a lot of standing around, too much thinking," which made it look like the team wasn't competing.
'Nobody likes losing'
"Nobody likes losing, not the organization, not the players, not the fans. But I am seeing improvement. [The young players] are making progress."
What happened with Patrick Kaleta and John Scott added to the dark cloud, putting a ton of heat on coach Ron Rolston. Regier defended him, saying the criticism is "piling on."
The Sabres played hard in Monday's loss, which dropped them to 0-7-1 in Western New York. They came back from three goals down and nearly tied it in the dying seconds. The fans were more subdued, but there were moments.
Late in the third period, Buffalo had three teenagers on the ice for a powerplay (Mikhail Grigorenko, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov). It struggled and they were booed.
The most dangerous thing is the youth wilts under this pressure, develops bad habits and a "losing is acceptable" mentality.
That would be epic failure for the organization.
"I don't worry about bad habits," Regier said. "But I do worry about the effect of losing...You have to make sure players can swim before you put them in the deep end, and when you put them in the deep end, you have to throw them a life preserver if necessary."
It explains the timing of the Thomas Vanek/Matt Moulson trade. Regier said the Islanders first approached him about Vanek in the summer, but "the desire to make a deal has to be there from both sides," and that didn't happen until recently. Neither team started the way their general managers liked.
That's why Buffalo was happy to get Moulson, even if his stay is short. The young players could learn a lot by watching this ninth-round pick whose work ethic allowed him to beat big odds in becoming a three-time 30-goal scorer.
Prepared for a drop
During a radio interview last week with WGR -- the team's flagship station -- Sabres president Ted Black warned that the organization was prepared for a drop. It's why Regier seems safe no matter the fans' frustration.
"We had a lot of conversations about this," he said. "It isn't as if I walked into [owner] Terry Pegula's office and said, 'We're going to start over.' We talked about this together and decided that if you wanted to build a Stanley Cup champion, you have to put the building blocks in place. The best way to put the building blocks in place is through the draft."
That's the Chicago/Pittsburgh model.
The Sabres had eight picks in the first and second rounds of the 2012-13 drafts. They have nine in the first two rounds of the 2014-15 drafts. With Moulson, Ryan Miller and Ott all potentially in play, you expect more to come.
"Draft picks are your currency," Regier said. "You can either use them to select players, or use them in other ways to help your team."
In other words, trading them for more established players is a possibility. The kids need experienced help.
That leads to the big question: When the organization decided to re-start, how long did the decision-makers say it would take?
"It's a bit of an unknown," Regier answers. "But I have confidence things will get better."
Elliotte FriedmanElliotte joined CBC in October 2003 and is a commentator with Hockey Night in Canada.
As part of his duties with Hockey Night in Canada, Friedman hosts Inside Hockey, a feature airing every Saturday during Scotiabank Hockey Tonight that tells the stories of the people and places that shape the game of hockey. Always committed to giving viewers the inside story, fans call follow him throughout the regular season and playoffs on Twitter.
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