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I THINK Rick Dudley is trying to tell us something. If you've been listening closely to the man -- reading between the lines and the line changes -- you'd swear you could detect the sound of a man crying out for help.

Rarely does the Sabres' head coach miss an opportunity to remind us that a certain quality is lacking in his team. Sometimes he is direct about it, at other times more oblique. But there's no confusing the message. He could use more toughness, more of his type of player.

After the Sabres were bounced from the playoffs last spring, Dudley said the team could use more grinders. Last fall, he talked about how much he missed Scott Arniel, a first-rate checker and defensive player. A few weeks ago, he said newcomer Jiri Sejba wasn't a puck-chaser, "something we could use . . . "

Early this week, when asked about his desire for a tougher team personality, Dudley said you either have it, get it, or develop it. He said the Sabres apparently were committed to developing it within the organization. Again, his words seemed to suggest that his general manager, Gerry Meehan, should at least consider going out and 'getting it' for him.

It's pretty clear that Dudley is struggling with the players he has. Picked by most experts to win their division, the Sabres have won just nine of their first 26 games. Most alarming of all, they are averaging just 3.1 goals a game, shockingly poor production for a team with so many gifted offensive players.

"I knew from day one this was going to be a long process with this hockey team," Dudley said. "It's by far the most difficult hockey there is to coach."

In other words, it's a lot tougher to coach skilled offensive players than grinders. Dudley is right, of course. It's easier to coach marginally talented players, guys who get by on grit and determination -- you know, guys who played the way Dudley used to -- than naturally gifted athletes. Any coach will tell you the hardest thing to coach is talent.

That seems to be at the heart of Dudley's dilemma this season. He has a lot of offensive talent, and hasn't quite figured out how to use it. The Sabres' offense, expected to be so potent and entertaining, has sputtered for one-third of a season, and Dudley's only remedy is to constantly juggle his lines.

A player doesn't grind to Dudley's liking and he's removed from his line, or benched altogether. Lines aren't given enough time to develop. A player grows accustomed to his linemates and, the next thing he knows, he's skating with new ones.

It's an unending circle. It's almost as if Dudley, by his constant line-changing, is trying to send an urgent message to Meehan in the general manager's office: "See, Ger', I've done everything and it still isn't working! Get me some grinders and puck-chasers."

Maybe it's time Dudley stopped overcoaching and allowed his team to find itself. Sure, they could use another guy to go to the net and into the corners. Yes, there are Sabres due for a long look in the mirror, or in the chest cavity. Pierre Turgeon and Dave Andreychuk come to mind. Alexander Mogilny is flying, both on and off the ice, but he's still an essentially selfish player with a lot to learn.

This is no call for panic. From day one, I felt people were expecting too much from the Sabres, who were bound to struggle early while adjusting to new players and a more offensive philosophy. Most of all, the team required patience. But Dudley has shown the patience of a 3-year-old on Christmas Eve. Dudley should stop worrying about what he doesn't have and start making the best of what he HAS. He should find some workable lines and stick with them. Talented athletes need time and space to express themselves. They perform best when they're not looking over their shoulder after every little mistake.

There's a difference between making things happen and letting them happen. Maybe it's time for Dudley to do the latter.

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