On the night after Christmas, the Sabres won in New Jersey and took over the top spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference. They were 10 points ahead of Ottawa, and they had several games in hand over most of their rivals. Suddenly, you started seeing the words "Sabres" and "elite" in the same sentence.
Apparently, it was too heady for them. The Sabres have gone 4-7-2 since that night in Jersey. They have slipped to third in their division. They're just six points ahead of eighth place in the East. If their slide continues after the All-Star break, they'll find them selves fighting for a playoff spot before too long.
But in a way, this mini-slump was the best thing that could have happened. Watching them struggle against a bad Tampa Bay team, you were jarred back to reality, awakened to the fact that they're not good enough to win the Stanley Cup, and that changes need to be made.
Darcy Regier has been general manager for a season and a half. He has been patient. He has done some good things. But he's come to a crucial moment in his regime -- the time when a good leader should recognize a crisis and do somethingabout it.
In recent weeks, some alarming signals have come from the Buffalo locker room. Michael Peca, the captain, has issued a couple of harsh postgame commentaries in an attempt to light a fire under his teammates. He has accused them of being nonchalant, of having a chip on their shoulder. He even said they could use a healthy dose of fear for their jobs.
During a recent luncheon with the media, coach Lindy Ruff said jealousy had infiltrated his team. He said certain players have seen their teammates grow in stature this year and had trouble accepting it.
Peca and Ruff are saying these things for a reason. As team leaders, they seem to be sending a mes sage to management: Things have gone a little awry in the locker room. A young team has reached a crossroads. Management needs to get the players' attention. The team needs a shake-up.
Regier needs to make a deal for a number of reasons: to wake up the players; to help Ruff assert his authority over players whose commitment is wavering; to rejuvenate Dominik Hasek; to show the fans they're serious about competing; and obviously, to improve the team's Stanley Cup chances by adding an elite veteran to the mix.
Matthew Barnaby is the perfect candidate for a deal. Trading him would be a powerful statement at this point. It makes sense on many levels.
The Sabres have been forced to grow up in a hurry during the past two years. Ruff has made strides as a young coach. Peca has come a long way as a young captain. Barnaby remains the same confused, erratic kid he was three or four years ago. The more this team matures, the more old and tired his act be comes. The Sabres have outgrown him.
Barnaby's skates are a legitimate concern. He has complained that he can't get the right fit for his foot, and that it's hurting his game. But the real problem isn't on his feet, it's in his head. It can't be a coincidence that the skate issue comes up when he's struggling. People in and around the organizationare shaking their heads at him these days, wondering how a supposed tough guy can talk about crying on his wife's lap and playing for free.
I suspect Barnaby is one of the jealous players Ruff referred to. No one's public stature has fallen as much the last two years. He was the darling of Buffalo under Ted Nolan. But his star diminished after Nolan left. It didn't help that he feuded with Hasek, sulked his way through the regular season and scored only five goals.
Barnaby was reborn in the playoffs, scoring seven goals and tying for the team lead in points. He was the best player on the ice in the Montreal series (his skates seemed fine then). It was natural to assume he'd build on it, but he's had a miserable season. He has four goals, giving him nine in his last 108 regular-season games.
Only rarely has he been the dynamic, detestable pest of the recent past, a man who got into the heads of opponents and threw them off their game.
The Sabres should move Barnaby now, while the memory of last year's playoff performance is reason ably fresh. There are GMs who still believe in him, who would love to acquire a player of his charisma. But the longer the Sabres wait, the less he'll fetch on the market.
Sure, they can keep Barnaby and hope he catches fire again in the playoffs. Then Regier would face the headache of dealing with his inflated demands when his contract runs out after this season.
Ruff gave up on Barnaby at one point a year ago. Barnaby demanded a trade and Ruff would have been happy to see him go.
Barnaby isn't all that popular any more. People don't pay to see him shoot the puck wide. They're coming because they feel the Sabres are a rising contender that could make another run at the Cup. Few people would weep if he was dealt.
It doesn't have to be Barnaby. There are other candidates for a trade -- the perplexing Geoff Sanderson, for one. The Sabres have a slew of promising defensemen in the organization, so they could afford to deal some of that depth.
Trading Barnaby makes the most sense, though. Calgary has a star to trade inTheo Fleury, who will be a free agent after the season. And they nearly acquiredBarnaby a year ago. As I understand it, Calgary even had a locker ready for him.Then someone (presumably, John Rigas) scuttled the trade at the last minute.
Fleury says he wants to play out West, so it might amount to renting his services for the rest of the season. Still, it might be worth it.
Regier has to do something. He has to stop hiding behind his team's youth andteam salary constraints. Yes, the Sabres are young. But they're close to contending. They have the world's best goalie in his late prime. If Regier trulybelieves in his team, it's time to show the players and the public he means it by pulling the trigger on a big deal.
That'll get the players' attention. Then the Sabres can move forward again. With a revised roster and a renewed sense of purpose, they can find out how close to the elite they really are.