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Pundits vary on Sabres' plight; Many predicted deep playoff run

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma was meeting a few reporters prior to last weekend's matinee in First Niagara Center when he was asked how surprised he was by the struggles of the Buffalo Sabres. His answer seemed to mirror plenty of thoughts across North America over the last four months.

"I thought they were on their way to being a real good team, a real dangerous team," said Bylsma, who led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009. "That, at some point, got off-track."

Sure did. There were all kinds of prognosticators, both locally and nationally, who expected the Sabres to be playing deep into May and maybe even into June. And while an 8-3-3 run in the last 14 games has shown some flashes of the kind of team many people expected, the Sabres have been left to hope they simply sneak into eighth place and grab the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

As they hit the trade deadline today, they could be selling pieces of their team in order to build for the future. That's not what anybody expected.

All three staff predictions in the season preview section produced by The Buffalo News picked the Sabres to lose in the Eastern Conference final. Last week, The News reached out for email responses from several national media members who also predicted big things from the Sabres last fall to get their thoughts about what's gone wrong.

When ESPN.com did its preseason picks, six of eight personalities picked the Sabres to unseat the Boston Bruins and win the Northeast Division. SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn, an avowed Rangers fan, had the Sabres losing to San Jose in the Stanley Cup final. Fellow anchor Steve Levy picked Buffalo to win its first Cup.

"I expected to hear from my friends in Buffalo after my preseason prediction," joked Levy, a former play-by-play man when ESPN had the NHL's national television contract. "And while I did correctly pick the Bruins to win the Stanley Cup last season, it does appear my streak will end at one in a row.

"You're fooling yourself if you're just going to chalk up this disappointing season to injuries. That's insulting to your fans' intelligence. Specifically, it seems like an 'off' year for the key player on the team, Ryan Miller. That's not to say it's all his fault but my prediction (and I believe most would agree) was based on the fact that for the Sabres to be good, Miller had to be great and he hasn't been close.

"And I'm sure no one wants to hear this but it does seem to me as if the Milan Lucic hit on Miller that night in Boston will be remembered as the signature moment of a disappointing season for Buffalo."

Cohn, a former Oswego State goalie, agreed with Levy that the Sabres struggled to bounce back from Miller-Lucic.

"I didn't see this disappointing season coming," she said. "Not with all the talent that was brought in."

NHL.com writer Corey Masisak also had the Sabres in the Cup finals, losing in six games to Los Angeles after upsetting No. 1 Washington in the East final.

"I picked the Sabres to play for the Cup and after I saw them in Helsinki, I felt even better about it," Masisak said. "I loved the additions on the blue line and thought they were really deep up front. Obviously the injuries have been a problem, but I also think there is something to the idea that once a season gets off track, it is hard to get it back on. Look at what has happened in Los Angeles and Washington as well.

"I still like the defense corps a lot and think with a few changes up front and better health next season, the Sabres could absolutely be back among the contenders in the East."

ESPN.com writer and TSN insider Pierre LeBrun, who picked the Sabres to lose in the East final, recalled a conversation he had with Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier in September in which they discussed the teams' high expectations.

"Could this team handle that? Like Regier, I took the leap of faith that it could," LeBrun said. "Like Regier, I was dead wrong. And yes, you cannot underestimate the injury losses this year. They had a huge impact. But I think you still have to delve deeper. And my opinion is that this current core doesn't have what it takes, between the ears, to be a winner.

"You cover enough Detroit Red Wings playoff games over the years and you understand that intangible. For that reason, it's imperative that Regier change the fabric of this core both before Monday's deadline and in the offseason."

Not everyone was sold on the Sabres. The Hockey News picked them fifth in the East, and Yahoo! national hockey writer Nicholas Cotsonika didn't list the Sabres on a preseason top 10 of Stanley Cup contenders, largely because he had reservations about the contracts given to Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff.

"I love [owner Terry] Pegula's passion, but looking at this dispassionately, it's just tough to win in today's NHL," Cotsonika said. "You have to spend wisely and build for the long term, and then you have to stay healthy and perform."

Masisak was the only one of nine NHL.com staffers to get bullish on Buffalo.

"There have been a slew of hard-to-overcome issues," said NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen. "It's easy to point to debilitating injuries first, but you can't ignore the average goaltending that went on for far too long, young players that haven't taken the next step in their careers, and big-money and long-term contracts given to players that weren't ready and may never be ready for big-time responsibility."

Adam Kimelman, NHL.com's deputy managing editor, sees a combination of "bad injuries, too many players having down seasons at the same time and some new pieces struggling to fit into a new situation. I don't think the Sabres are a bad team by any stretch. I just think you chalk it up as 'one of those years.' "

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com