The case could be made that the Buffalo Sabres have been the most troubled franchise in the NHL over the last decade, with a playoff drought extending back to 2011 (the same year that Terry and Kim Pegula took ownership) under 10 different general managers and head coaches. After being shutout 3-0 twice by the Philadelphia Flyers last weekend, the Sabres have lost eight of their last 10 games are tied for last place in the league with 15 points (6-10-3), and appear rudderless and in need of another overhaul.
Injuries and illness have taken their toll on the Sabres. Nine players were on the NHL’s COVID Protocol list last month, the club lost defensemen Jake McCabe(knee) and Will Borgen(forearm) and on Saturday revealed that starting goalie Linus Ullmark will be out at least a month with a lower-body injury, but their woes have more to do with their core players not being able to play up to expectations and a muddled message from head coach Ralph Krueger.
The Sabres have only 44 goals in 19 games this season, with the four highest-paid players (Jack Eichel – $10 million AAV, Jeff Skinner – $9 million AAV, Taylor Hall – $8 million AAV, and Kyle Okposo – $6 million AAV) combining for only three goals, while youngsters like 2018 top pick Rasmus Dahlin (who the worst plus/minus in the NHL at -18) have struggled.
“Everyone’s in the right mindset. It doesn’t seem like we’re very connected as a group. We just gotta dig deep. I don’t have a cliche answer for you right now, I’m trying to process this all myself,” Eichel said after a 3-0 loss to the Flyers on Sunday. “It’s tough, if we had answers we would be spitting them all. I think we’re trying to figure it out as well. It’s a really good group of guys in there and we’ve stuck together but it’s definitely been tough so far.”
Krueger has been criticized for his handling of Skinner, who has played mostly on the fourth line and returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch for three games last week, has been evasive to the media regarding the injury status of Eichel, and now is being questioned on whether his message is getting through to the players.
“The principles of play or the core structure that we’re searching for, we embrace,” Krueger said. “There’s no negotiation that it works in the National Hockey League. We’ve seen it. But if we drift from it and we’re not able to execute it, then we have to question the processes. We have to question the teaching.”
In spite of increasing calls for his firing, Krueger over the weekend indicated that he is not concerned about his job security, but that might have to do with the fact that he has another year left on his contract and that ownership will likely not want to spend more money on a new coach with the Sabres likely missing the playoffs for the 10th straight season.
GM Kevyn Adams could be a very busy man over the next six weeks leading up to the April 12th trade deadline, with pending unrestricted free agents in Hall, Eric Staal, and Brandon Montour as attractive rentals, but with the club having another disastrous campaign, it is possible that the changes will be limited to just them.