You often hear how putting together a team is like constructing a puzzle, so let’s stick with that theme for the sake of simplicity. The Sabres remain a scattered mess strewn across the table with numerous pieces resting in different piles, some upside down and many unrelated to one another.
The job for Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan, who have been on the job less than four weeks, is making sense of the rounded corners and odd shapes. A vague image is beginning to emerge, but they’ve realized that they A) are several pieces short and B) have numerous others from the wrong box.
What fits and how?
Well, that’s the object.
LaFontaine and Nolan are breaking down the roster and figuring out who belongs, a practice certain to continue for the foreseeable future. Several players are worth keeping but others need to be discarded. They’re examining every piece with the idea that a big picture of the Stanley Cup will eventually snap into place.
We shouldn’t get too far ahead, of course. After all, Buffalo had scored one goal or fewer in half of its games before beating Ottawa, 2-1, in a shootout marathon Tuesday night in First Niagara Center.
Here’s a sobering fact: The Sabres need a 35-12-6 record over their final 51 games to finish with 92 points. The average total (prorated for the lockout) for the eighth-place team in the past three years was 93.
Still, the Sabres played their best game since Nolan and LaFontaine returned to turn around the organization. Buffalo had a season-high 18 shots in the second period, which was more than they had in three other games this season. They matched their season high with 36 shots in the game. Eventually, enough small victories will turn into real ones.
LaFontaine and Nolan made it clear when they arrived that the players would ultimately determine their own futures in Buffalo. Their effort, and lack thereof, will separate long-term solutions from short-term problems. Everybody on the roster has been given an equal opportunity to prove himself one way or the other.
You would be hard-pressed to name one player who failed to show up against the Senators. At times this season, you were struggling to find one player who did.
Nolan has been impressed recently with Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno, who are resurfacing after falling into the abyss. Ennis was flying Tuesday night, relying on his instincts and getting away from the robotic style that compromised his creativity. He was the best player on the ice Tuesday. Foligno was aggressive and engaged.
Overall, the Sabres are improving.
Nolan showered Brayden McNabb with praise. He’s committed to fixing Tyler Myers, who with Drew Stafford have become reclamation projects. Zemgus Girgensons had his second goal in two games and added the winner in the shootout Tuesday. Mark Pysyk and Luke Adam are finding their way on the fly.
And then there’s Ryan Miller, who was superb again and supported his coach’s argument that he’s a world-class goaltender. Miller is their most valuable asset and remains an integral part of the equation whether they trade him or not. He’s making a case for another contract extension, assuming he would accept one.
Ville Leino, on the other hand, by taking it easy, is making it easy.
Leino was a healthy scratch Tuesday after loafing through practice Monday. More disturbing than his practice habits was his nonchalance over getting benched. He shrugged his shoulders and wondered aloud what Nolan expected, as if he needed things spelled out for him after going scoreless in his first 18 games
It’s not that difficult to understand. Nolan expects an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. He expects leadership from 30-year-old playing his seventh NHL season. He expects a little jam. He expects a goal every once in a while from a so-called top-six forward. Is that really asking for too much from a guy making $4.5 million?
Nolan has low tolerance for players like Leino, which is one reason the forward should expect to be gone before next season. The Sabres don’t need a lazy, indifferent, overpaid veteran sharing the dressing room with young players when they’re driving home a message about commitment and passion.
Nolan has provided clues that point toward the Sabres keeping a collection of good young players. Veteran leaders also will have a chance to remain.
Everybody else, or more than half the roster, is expendable. Nobody is untouchable.
LaFontaine is taking his time in hiring a general manager, which will be his biggest decision since taking over hockey operations. There’s no need to rush.
It’s not as if teams are clamoring for Buffalo’s third- and fourth-line players. The Sabres don’t have a true first-liner no matter who is designated for the top assignment on their team. They might not have a player worthy of the second line on a contender or, for that matter, a top two defenseman. Check the roster.
Cody Hodgson is a second-line center at best, but he’s closer to a third-liner on a good team. Ennis and Stafford would be third-line players. Steve Ott is between the third and fourth lines. He and Matt Moulson are set to become unrestricted free agents. Both could be gone before next season.
Mike Weber’s problem isn’t effort but effectiveness, evidenced by his minus-16 in 17 games. Brian Flynn hustles, but he belongs in the AHL. Where are they going with forwards such as Cody McCormick, John Scott and Matt D’Agostini and defensemen like Jamie McBain and, at the tail end of his career, Henrik Tallinder?
The Sabres stockpiled draft picks and acted as if it was an achievement. Now, they need to package many of them to replace top-line talent that was lost when they acquired the picks in the first place. For now, the picks are small parts of an uncertain future, pieces in a bigger picture that isn’t quite clear.
It’s still puzzling.