Year after year, no matter how out of sync the Sabres finish on the ice, they come together on locker cleanout day. The players join in unison to praise the camaraderie in the dressing room. They pledge allegiance to the teammate who is packing up alongside them.
"These guys believe in themselves, which showed," Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek said Monday. "At one point we were last and we came close [to making the playoffs], so I don't think there's a character issue in here because I think a lot of other teams probably would have shut it down."
Similar comments came from other stalls in First Niagara Center as players bundled their sticks and packed their skates for another long summer. They also all agreed the 12-game road losing streak in the middle of season dimmed their chances of making the playoffs. They concurred they should have been mentally tougher when adversity struck. They were in harmony in saying production could have been better at all ends of the ice.
When it came to their coach, however, discord developed. There are differences of opinion on coach Lindy Ruff and his way of doing things.
Derek Roy, an alternate captain who has been in the organization for nine of Ruff's 15 seasons, was the first to voice dissatisfaction with the coach Monday. Last week, Ruff said if the players couldn't get into the postseason, it meant they weren't good enough. When the playoff run fell short, he put the blame on the players, specifically the veterans and core members.
"To be pointing fingers right now is obviously tough," Roy said. "Behind closed doors I think it's fine. You can be hard. It's not fun, but it's good to be hard on your players behind closed doors, on the bench to get them pumped up. I'm not a coach, but I don't think it's the right thing to be saying it to the media."
The comment brought Ruff's relationship with his players to the forefront for the rest of the day.
"Obviously, he's hard on a lot of guys," Vanek said. "He's hard on me. Obviously, at times you agree with him and other times you don't."
Roy and Vanek have been two of Ruff's prime targets for years. They have had intense conversations on the ice and in the coach's office. Ruff has alternately praised and lambasted them in public.
Roy and Vanek are two of the team's most talented and high-profile players, so Ruff using them as examples could get his message to the whole team. It's a tactic that may have run its course now that the players are closer to their 30th birthday than their rookie year.
"We've always had that relationship since Day One," Vanek said. "I've played 500-some games, and it's not like he just started doing it two months ago to me. He's tough on his guys, and you've got to respect that and play.
"He's treated me the same [as if I was a 21-year-old kid]. I don't know if that's bad or good. He's doing it with other guys, too, so it's not an issue for me. I don't see it differently than maybe other guys."
Roy says Ruff could have used different methods to lift the players' confidence during the season's many difficult stretches.
"Yeah, you're not going to be feeling good about your game at all points of the season," Roy said. "You're going to have some rough patches and go a couple a games. That's when you need somebody to tell you what you're doing wrong or, 'Hey, you're not scoring. This is why you're not scoring. Here's a video clip of you not shooting or a video clip of you not getting to the net or doing whatever.' Yeah, that coaching has to come in."
Does Ruff do that?
"I mean, there's different ways," Roy said after a shrug and grin.
"Part of the reason he's hard on us is he knows he can get more out of us when he pushes us more," captain Jason Pominville said. "Different guys handle it different ways. When you're going through a tough stretch like we did where we weren't winning games on the road, you try to find different ways. For a little while, he was actually really positive even though we weren't winning games. But he was on us pretty hard to change things."
Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, in his first season with Buffalo after stops in San Jose and Vancouver, has played for four head coaches.
"I've played for coaches that have been harder on you," Ehrhoff said. "I've played for coaches that have been not as hard. I think it's up to the players to find their game and find their level of confidence.
"I think Lindy's a very fair coach. He evaluates the game pretty fair. He'll tell you to your face when you did a mistake, and he'll tell you when you did something good. I think he's pretty fair. It wasn't his fault or anything like that that we got into this position."
The fault, the players agreed, can be found with everyone.
"There's plenty of blame to go around," forward Brad Boyes said. "Nobody should point fingers at anybody but themselves. That goes for everybody."
Added right wing Patrick Kaleta: "At the end of the day, we weren't good enough. Everyone here wasn't good enough."