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The Sky Has Fallen

Team Will Miss Playoffs for First Time Since Before Lockout

“The sky is not falling.”

So said Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier last July, when an angry public demanded to know how the organization could have allowed co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to depart via free agency.

The Sabres hastily arranged a press conference back then, and on the dais were Regier and a somber-faced Larry Quinn, doing their best to assuage the fans and convince the season ticket holders that all was not lost—that the team would do their best to field a competitive product on the ice, and that the departure of their two best players would not be the beginning of the apocalypse.

At one point, Regier made one admission which has proven to be prophetic: “We will not be as competitive”.

Boy he nailed that one.

This week the Buffalo Sabres will complete their 12-month journey from President’s Trophy winners to one of the NHL’s also-rans. The team was a legitimate Stanley Cup contender last season; some would say that two seasons ago the Cup was theirs for the taking, and only a mind-boggling spate of injuries to the defensive corps extinguished that dream.

Memories of this season’s failures are many: The excruciating 10-game losing streak in December and January. Thomas Vanek’s inability to shoulder the expectations that came with being “The Man.” The inability to resign Brian Campbell followed by the team’s folderoo after the trade deadline. The inability to win shootouts when such challenges were automatic wins in years past. Blowing a two-goal lead on no less than six occasions, none more memorable than last week’s meltdowns at home against Ottawa and Montreal.

Then there was the March playoff chase, and if you’re a Sabres fan, this was one of the most exasperating years ever to watch and stare at the standings. Go back to February 27 and the thrilling 8-4 win against Nashville, with newcomer Steve Bernier scoring the first two goals and all the entertainment and thrills that happened in that game. On that night the Sabres took control of seventh seed in the East.

Things would go downhill quickly. Two nights later they suffered an embarrassing loss against Montreal. Meantime, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and the New York Rangers were holding their own in the standings. Even worse, when these competitors faced each other, they never seemed to settle their games in regulation—always that overtime or that shootout, and three points being awarded.

You know things are getting bad when your head coach can’t even bear to watch his own team in a shootout anymore, as in Ottawa last week. Or that he won’t watch out-of-town scores anymore, as he also admitted after the morning skate the day of the Montreal game.

Soon the Sabres will clean out their lockers and say goodbye until September. What the team does in the off-season will determine whether the ship can be righted, or whether we’ll endure more misery next season and, for that matter, well into the future. Here is what the team needs to do:

Re-sign Ryan Miller. Something wasn’t right about Miller for much of this season. Perhaps he never shook off the tragic loss of his young cousin before the season started. More likely, exhaustion took its toll on a player who was called upon night after night to start in net. But make no mistake—Miller is one of the league’s elite goaltenders and is just entering his prime. You do not win a Stanley Cup without an elite goaltender.

Anyone who wants to say goodbye to Miller and bring in a retread is just deluding themselves. That would make us a last-place team for years to come.

Sign a capable backup. Clearly Lindy Ruff lost confidence in Jocelyn Thibault as the season wore on. Out there are more than a few goalies who could fit into this program. Alex Auld, Johan Hedberg, Wade Dubielewicz just to name a few. Dare we say it? Dominik Hasek will be a free agent after this season. Bad joke, we know.

Make a splash in the free agent market. This goes totally against the Darcy Regier M.O., as the team has relied largely on drafting and home-grown talent. But this is no ordinary off-season. This team is bleeding and sorely in need of veteran leadership with star power.

Sign a “character player.” Michael Peca made overtures to Buffalo. He still lives here and he wanted to return to his old team. The Sabres snubbed him and he went to Columbus instead. Peca is exactly the kind of player this team needs—tough, gritty, a leader in the clubhouse. He, too, will hit the free agent market come July.

Most importantly, the Sabres need to show the fan base that this team is committed to being a winner. The community has responded to this team at the box office and showered it with their affection in ways not seen since the days of the French Connection. However, one can expect that to change mightily if the club is unable to rebuild the on-ice product back to the Stanley Cup contender that it was in recent past.

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