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Inside the Sabres: It comes down to a matter of respect

During the 11 years that we "worked together," Ryan Miller and I had two big arguments. One was relatively infamous because it was on camera after a 7-6 home loss in February 2011. The other came to mind on deadline day after listening to Jason Botterill talk sternly about the Sabres' need for "compete and preparation."

It was December 2008 and Buffalo had lost eight of 10 games. After a 2-1 defeat in Florida, coach Lindy Ruff called out Miller. He said "you've got to get saves there" in reference to both goals and added the first one was "an easy play for Ryan to read."

The next day, Ruff put the entire team, goaltenders included, through a skate-heavy practice in Tampa. With sweat pouring down Miller's face, the goalie closed his tense and terse interview with what seemed like a shot at Ruff.

"Well, I guess I'm going to have to read better," he said as he bolted for the team bus.

I looked at Paul Hamilton of WGR-AM 550, and we both said (and wrote) the same thing: Wow, he's obviously not happy about getting called out.

After the Sabres beat the Lightning, Miller refused to talk to me, other than yelling a few words.

We had a long, calm chat after returning to Buffalo. Miller insisted he wasn't calling out Ruff, and he was very adamant as to why.

He was scared of the coach. He said Ruff was in charge of his career and playing time. Miller was worried if he crossed him, he could be benched or shipped out of town.

I was flabbergasted. With the Bills lacking star power, Miller was easily the most popular athlete in Buffalo. He'd backstopped the team to consecutive appearances in the conference finals. He was the Great American Hope with the Vancouver Olympics a couple of years away.

I thought it was crazy Miller would be worried about the coach. If anything, I figured Ruff should be worried about losing a power struggle to Miller. But back then, the Sabres had players who respected the coach and the organizational hierarchy.

My, how things have changed.

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Too many Sabres either don't care or think they're in charge. Coach Phil Housley has a great knack for forecasting exactly what the opponent will do, and he explains it clearly in the morning. When the puck drops, the opponent follows the blueprint and the Sabres stand there and get run over.

The players don't listen or, even worse, don't feel they even have to listen. It's a major reason why the Sabres are bottom-feeders once again.

In all sports nowadays, athletes have more power than before. But if Miller, one of the most-loved players in Buffalo, can show respect for coaches and the organization, some of the most-loathed athletes in Buffalo should probably follow suit.

"Sometimes guys think they're playing hard, but they're not playing hard enough and they have to work," Housley said. "I think that's the bottom line for a lot of guys."

Nelson has options

Casey Nelson chose Buffalo once. The Sabres need him to do it again.

The defenseman, who has become a key component on the top two pairs, will be an unrestricted free agent. It's a rarity for a 25-year-old player finishing just his third professional season, but he'll fall under the "Group VI" category. It states that anyone 25 or older who has played three seasons but fewer than 80 NHL games is a UFA.

Nelson played seven games in Buffalo after signing out of college in 2016. He played 11 games last year and is at 21 this year. That's a total of 39, and only 17 remain. At most, he'll play 56 through three seasons.

Hence, he'll be free to sign anywhere.

"Some weird rule where I didn't meet the number of games," said Nelson, who didn't know of his pending status until recently. "I don't really think about that. We'll worry about that after the season."

Nelson has carved out a solid role in Buffalo, one that other teams surely have noticed – especially the teams that also watched him at Minnesota State.

"I love it here, but we'll worry about that after the year," Nelson said.

Nothing left

With Evander Kane gone and Benoit Pouliot expected to leave after the season, the Sabres have a serious depth problem at left wing. They have only Zemgus Girgensons, Alex Nylander and departed Matt Moulson under contract for next season. Scott Wilson and C.J. Smith will be restricted free agents. There are no other prospects ready for the leap.

Toronto's James van Riemsdyk heads the list of pending UFA left wingers, joined by Kane and Vegas' David Perron.

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