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The Sabres 2011-12 Season: a Disaster and a Success that will Enrage the Local Media for Months to Come

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Well, that sucked.

Back on June 18th (and again on October 4th), we talked here about the importance of adding a veteran defense to the Buffalo Sabres. Remember our defense from the 2010-11 season? From our previous article:

Buffalo only has three defenders over the age of 24.  A disturbing list:

  • Steve Montador, 31
  • Jordan Leopold, 30
  • Shaone Morrisson, 28
  • Chris Butler, 24
  • Andrej Sekera, 24
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani, 24
  • Mike Weber, 23
  • Tyler Myers, 21

Of those guys over 24, Morrisson has hardly been a defensive stalwart this season, and Leopold/Montador have not been able to stay on the ice. Indeed, if there is a weakness of the Blue and Gold that teams are going to expose until the end of this hockey year, it is going to be the green defense corps.  Of all places, it is in their own zone, from where the team must take it’s most important steps, where their Achilles Heel is exposed.

We went a bit further from there:

Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal wrote a smart piece that not only confirmed my worries about our green defense, but provided an analysis of all Cup-winning team defenses from the last ten years (this year’s Bruins excluded).  The results of his study are truly damning of our current roster.

As a whole, the champion defencemen were a veteran group. The average age was something over 30, with the top-pairing guys averaging a year or two more than that. Among 28 minute-munchers who averaged over 20 minutes a night (highlighted in bold), fifteen were 30 or older, just three 25 or younger.

Each of the last four Stanley Cup champs has featured a major UFA signing on the back end.

As we all know, Darcy Regier took Terry Pegula’s riches and was able to lure Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr to town. Mission accomplished, so one might think. Ehrhoff was a steady spark plug on the ice all season long, and played well enough with his new teammates. Regehr lead the team in hits, as expected, and was a quiet force of steely grit on the ice.

Well, mostly. They weren’t always out there. Like most of their new teammates, they were hit by the injury bug. In all, 335 man games were lost to injury this season for the Sabres. That’s not an excuse for missing the playoffs. It is just something that happened. Folks might point out how the Penguins had even more man games lost and still succeeded, but remember – we don’t have a 50-goal 109-point scoring Malkin if our Crosby goes down.

And we don’t have a Crosby.

For a while, we also didn’t have a Ryan Miller. Thanks, Lucic. The Miller Lucic incident will define this season for years to come. It’s ridiculous and sad that something more out of the WWE will be our nostalgic gem from this campaign.

LucicMiller 300x187 The Sabres 2011 12 Season: a Disaster and a Success that will Enrage the Local Media for Months to Come

Miller Lucic. (Artist's interpretation.)

To add to our misery, we had our share of dealing with the worst part of the injury bug this season – concussions. It first hit home for us on October 6th, when the CBC produced a report detailing the discovery of CTE in the brain of deceased and beloved Sabres legend, Rick Martin. Concussions hit Jochen Hecht pretty damn hard, too. Concussions limited his time on the ice to 22 games.  He’s now an UFA, and at 34 years of age, he’ll be lucky to sign on anywhere. Frankly, given his injury history along with this CTE nightmare, he might be luckier if no one signs him. After 9 seasons with Buffalo, (10 if you count the lockout season), it looks like Hecht has put on a blue and gold sweater for the final time.

As if the injuries and the losses weren’t enough, fans were also treated to the misery that was the Time Warner/MSG Network dispute. For many, the 2011-12 season will be remembered as the season we all learned how to (illegally?) transmit feeds of the game on our laptops. (If that’s you, I’d strongly advise running a strong anti-virus program right about now.)

After the magic of Jeremy Lin helped settle that ridiculous issue, the magic of the Sabres began just in time for an unlikely playoff run. A 19-5-5 run almost got us there, but just faltered at the end. It was reminiscent of the 16-4-4 late season push last season, when Pegula first strode into town.

Then again, this season was also reminiscent of something else.

On locker room cleanout day, the players all agreed that this year’s 12 game road losing streak was a main factor (likely the main factor) that killed this season. The last time the Sabres missed out on the playoffs was the 2007-2008 season, which featured a 10 game losing streak that stretched from December to January. The boys weren’t able to recover from that one, either.

Injuries, Lucic, and one heckuva losing streak. Those are the stories of the 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres. Well, mostly the Lucic one. But, Sabres fans, take heart, for

ALL IS NOT LOST.

Ted Black appeared on WGR radio recently to tell everyone that “Sometimes, winning and success aren’t necessarily the same thing.” Despite how that might enrage some of the local media, he’s right. While the Sabres ultimately failed on the ice this season, they succeeded in plenty of other areas. Their roster additions were smart and effective (ok not Leino, and yes, I know we signed him hoping for a strong playoff performance, but he was a stoic no-show for the clutch games of the 19-5-5 playoff run and beyond). The Sabres over-spent, but the message to the players of the NHL was delivered: the Sabres do what it takes to get players to Buffalo and to keep more coming. Buffalo: a destination. Finally.

And for fans, the upgrades to the arena and game experience are still coming. Hockey heaven isn’t just the guys sitting on the bench. It’s all around us, outside the arena, in our living rooms and at our local rinks. Pegula bolstered an already strong hockey community here, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

There were plenty of other sparks on the ice once that injury bug finally started to disappear. The Foligno-Ennis-Stafford line was nothing short of spectacular. The need for call-ups from Rochester gave our young kids plenty of NHL experience, which will ultimately speed and augment their development as prospects. Regier was also able to add Cody Hodgson to our center ranks, and the surprising Alexander Sulzer to the defense. He dealt Gaustad for an unfathomable 1st round pick. Buffalo has 4 picks in the top 44 selections of the upcoming draft. The future, as they say, is bright.

“The future” isn’t much of a consolation to this team or its fans right now. But after a week of hindsight at least on my part, it’s pretty clear that the Sabres built a strong foundation this season. They’ve got a top notch goaltender, a veteran defense, some pretty nifty wingers, and an improving center corps.

That’s usually a recipe for deep playoff runs.

And they’re not done building.

This offseason should be a wild one. Those 4 picks in the 1st and 2nd round could add much to this team through the draft, or through trades. It would seem that no one in the “old core” is untouchable in the trade market anymore. (5 seasons of general failure will do that to a core.)

In other words, don’t buy anyone’s jersey right now. (Or if you do, make sure you request for a free nameplate switch if your player is dealt.)

Meanwhile, we’ll keep you entertained again in the offseason. We’ll have our ridiculous Summer Awards and top Sabres GIFs. 2011-12 is dead to us, but as Rick Jeanneret is famous for saying: “Plenty more comin’ up in a moment!”

Go Sabres.

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