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Acquistions fizzle in Buffalo Cover Story: Post-lockout newcomers have slowed down since arriving in the Queen City

Lindy Ruff answered without hesitation. Dealing with new arrivals is the hardest part of being an NHL coach.

"Yeah, I think it is," the Buffalo Sabres' coach said last weekend.

Few things get fans more excited than a player joining their team. Whether it's a free agent signing or a trade deadline deal, the faithful believe the addition could be the guy needed to create a winner.

The players and coaches feel that pressure. Some excel. More fail. The Sabres have experienced the latter more than nearly everyone.

The Buffalo News, in an effort to determine players' immediate impact on a new team, has analyzed the offensive output of all 251 skaters who have signed a multiyear contract with a new team since 2006-07. In addition, The News analyzed all 302 skaters who have switched teams within three weeks of the trade deadline since 2005-06, either via trade or waivers.

Of the 13 players in the study added by the Sabres, the production of nine of them – 69.2 percent – dropped compared to their prior team. Three (15.3 percent) improved their point-per-game numbers in Buffalo. Steve Montador maintained the pace he set with his prior club.

"First and foremost, it's because they had a fit where they were at," Ruff said. "They had a couple players that they were used to playing with. I think in most situations it takes a period of time [to fit in], and sometimes that period of time might be 20-30 games, sometimes it may be longer. We've had lots of those situations."

The answer to "why" is wide-ranging, but three factors emerge often:

* The organization acquires players when they've already reached their peak, leaving a downward turn as the likely option.

* The players' roles change with the Sabres, who try to get newcomers to adapt to their system.

* Players may not get the same ice time in Buffalo they did elsewhere.

Six of the players picked up by the Sabres were in the midst of their career-best season or had just completed it. Buffalo was banking on the surging players – Dainius Zubrus, Dominic Moore, Raffi Torres, Jaroslav Spacek, Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff – to maintain a previously unattainable pace.

They all tailed off.

"There's high motivation to do well in the last year [of a contract]," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "You have the familiarity of the team, often for an extended period. You have the expectations of a new contract that is seldom smaller than the last contract, and you have the expectations of the new team and teammates."

> Ice time relevant

The three largest production drops for Buffalo have been the deadline acquisitions of Moore and Zubrus and the signing of Spacek.

Moore averaged 0.65 points per game for Toronto in 2008-09 but slumped to 0.24 after getting traded to the Sabres. The drop of 0.43 was the largest for any newcomer. Since it was later discovered he broke his wrist shortly after arriving, he has been excluded from some categories.

Zubrus had the second-largest drop, sliding from 0.87 points per game with Washington to 0.47 with the Sabres during the 2006-07 season. Spacek put up 0.60 points in 55 regular-season and playoff games with Edmonton in 2005-06, but he managed only 0.26 points with the Sabres the following season.

A drop in ice time hindered both.

Zubrus averaged 19:51 per game with the Caps but dipped to 18:22 with the Sabres. He skated 20-plus minutes in 48 percent of his games with Washington and topped the milestone just 20 percent of the time in Buffalo.

Spacek lost more than four minutes per game, freefalling from 23:39 in Edmonton to 19:09 in Buffalo. His power-play average dwindled from 4:48 to 2:57. He played fewer than 10 minutes during Buffalo's final two playoff games with Ottawa in 2007.

"You've got a guy like Jaro Spacek who really struggled for a year, and then ended up with Brian Campbell and it seemed like the perfect pair," Ruff said. "At times, it's a struggle to find the pieces that really work well."

An increase in ice time bolstered two players who increased their production in Buffalo. Alexander Sulzer was languishing on the sidelines in Vancouver last season, and the defenseman skated only 15:59 when he did dress. Once arriving in Buffalo, Sulzer averaged 19:18 and increased his per-game output by 0.45 points to 0.53.

Jordan Leopold skated 1:24 more per game in Buffalo during 2010-11 than he did the previous year in Pittsburgh. He increased his totals by 0.18 points.

> Playing to their strengths

How Ruff uses a player is as important as how much, if not more.

Leino's first year in Buffalo was an indisputable bust. Coming off a career-best campaign in Philadelphia (0.63 points per game), the forward stumbled to just 0.35 with the Sabres last year. A lack of power-play time and an increase in defensive assignments helped crush him.

Leino's total ice time was nearly even between two teams, but he put up 11 power-play points with Philly while averaging 2:18 on the man advantage. While getting 1:02 per outing with Buffalo, he had one power-play point.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette also tried to hide Leino's defensive liabilities. Ruff used Leino like nearly all his players – in a two-way role. Leino, according to hockey stats website BehindTheNet.ca, started in the offensive zone 62.3 percent of the time with the Flyers. In Buffalo, Leino began on the attack side of the blue line 54.5 percent of the time. Leino told The News following the season that it took him a long time to get used to the changes.

The philosophy of Ruff and the coaching staff, goaltender Ryan Miller said last season, is equal balance and responsibility through all four lines. Even if an offensive threat like Ottawa's Jason Spezza is on the ice, Miller said, the Sabres' system is intended to work whether it's Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville facing Spezza or Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick.

Newcomers who are not used to two-way roles have trouble adapting. Ehrhoff and center Cody Hodgson join Leino on that list.

Like Laviolette, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault prefers to use his players in specialized situations. Ehrhoff, an offensive defenseman, started in the offensive zone 61.5 percent of the time for Vancouver in 2010-11. That number dropped to 52.8 percent in Buffalo last year, and Ehrhoff's points slipped by 0.13 per game while his plus/minus went from 19 to minus-2.

Hodgson began in the offensive zone a mind-boggling 83 percent of the time for the Canucks in January, according to Behind the Net. After getting dealt to Buffalo in February, Hodgson's offensive-zone starts plummeted to 49 percent.

His points dropped by 0.12 per outing. The rookie was also on the ice for 18 of the 46 goals allowed by the Sabres during his 20 games (39.1 percent), including a defensive-zone faceoff with 26 seconds left against Colorado that resulted in a shootout loss.

The effectiveness of the Sabres' newcomers could be improved by using them in roles in which they thrived with their previous teams.

"A lot of it is conversations you have with the player," Ruff said. "A lot of it is playing them in situations and trying to give them some comfort in situations, and the situations you're putting him in are making him feel important. They're coming to a new team. They're coming to players they don't know really well, and it's trying to make them feel good about their game."

The majority of the time, they haven't.

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

Editor's Note: This is the second of two parts. The News examines how NHL players acquired via free agency and trades impact the Sabres.

GRAPHIC: DISAPPOINTING ACQUISITIONS

Since the lockout, the Sabres have acquired seven skaters within three weeks of the trade deadline and signed six unrestricted free agents to multiyear contracts. The offensive output went down for 69.2 percent of them after they arrived in Buffalo.

> SIGNINGS

Player Prev. Sabres Diff.

Jaroslav Spacek 0.60 0.26 -0.34

Steve Montador 0.27 0.29 0.02

Jordan Leopold 0.29 0.47 0.18

Shaone Morrisonn 0.16 0.08 -0.08

Ville Leino 0.63 0.35 -0.28

Christian Ehrhoff 0.61 0.38 -0.13

> TRADES

Player Prev. Sabres Diff.

Dainius Zubrus 0.87 0.47 -0.40

Steve Bernier 0.39 0.53 0.14

Dominic Moore 0.65 0.24 -0.43

Raffi Torres 0.52 0.39 -0.13

Brad Boyes 0.66 0.54 -0.12

Cody Hodgson 0.52 0.40 -0.12

Alexander Sulzer 0.08 0.53 0.45

*Points per game