There are seasons when it's understandable and even OK to miss the playoffs. Teams can use their also-ran status as a learning experience that will benefit the organization in the long run.
Not the Buffalo Sabres. Not this year.
There's no way to rationalize a playoff absence. There's nothing to be learned by a roster full of players in their prime. The coach and general manager with 15 seasons on their resumes didn't need another year of experience.
As they clean out their lockers and conduct exit meetings today, the Sabres have to look at the 2011-12 season for what it really was. It was a wasted season. It was a lost season.
"For sure," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think you've got to look at it that way. You can't look at it any other way."
The Sabres wasted a year of their professional lives by failing to make the postseason. Highly paid, highly experienced and supposedly highly motivated, Buffalo was regarded as a Stanley Cup contender.
Instead, they finished 19th in the 30-team NHL. No one remembers teams that finished 19th, at least not positively.
"It feels like it's a wasted season," captain Jason Pominville said. "Another year goes by, and we're not where we want to be."
The blame falls across the board. The early hammer of culpability is pounding the core and the people who decided to build around it.
In 2007 and 2008, General Manager Darcy Regier gave six players long-term contracts totaling $155 million. Goaltender Ryan Miller and forwards Thomas Vanek, Pominville, Derek Roy, Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad were supposed to lead the Sabres in the post-Drury/Briere era.
Their five seasons in charge have netted zero playoff series wins. They've missed the playoffs in three of five seasons.
"For us that have been here awhile, it's more disappointing," Vanek said. "We're here to lead this team, and we failed."
Last summer, Regier added to the foundation and payroll. He re-signed right wing Drew Stafford, extended the contract of defenseman Tyler Myers and targeted defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino as needed pieces. Regier gave them $121.5 million, bringing the grand total of his hand-picked players to $276.5 million -- more than a quarter of a billion dollars.
They responded by winning 39 of the team's 82 games.
"We put it on that core group of players," Ruff said. "For me it's a tough situation to be in because we battled hard to get back, but we didn't get there."
Ruff, meanwhile, has coached the team into the playoffs just four times in the last 10 seasons. He issued captaincy letters to Pominville, Roy, Vanek, Stafford and Gaustad prior to the season opener. Only Pominville improved on last season. The rest regressed.
They weren't alone. Ruff failed to coax more out of most players. Nathan Gerbe, Brad Boyes, Andrej Sekera and Leino were just a few notables who experienced significant drop-offs in production.
"It's been a frustrating season," Boyes said. "We had every chance to get into the playoffs, and we failed. That never feels good.
"Sitting here now, we're done. We don't have another game. It's a huge disappointment from the guys in the room to I'm sure the whole organization. It's just interesting where we go from here."
Indeed, where do they go from here? The situation, yet again, screams for change. Status quo has reigned. Status quo has not been good enough.
"The standards have to be higher around here," Pominville said. "We have to find a way to be better. It's unacceptable to be out and in the position we're in right now."