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Regier caught by surprise by Sabres’ bad start

TAMPA, Fla. — Darcy Regier has had a target on his chest often during his long, tumultuous tenure as Sabres general manager. The anger, however, has never been this pinpoint, with arrows of derision getting fired at Regier from all sides.

Through it all so far – the chants for his firing from dwindling crowds in Buffalo, the outright mocking by former players and NHL analysts – Regier says he’s kept others in his thoughts.

“With respect to how the fans feel, I understand that,” Regier told The News on Saturday. “It’s interesting. What overrides the personal is you feel badly for others, whether it’s coaches or players or ownership or fans. You feel badly for them, and it just brings the focus back on you’ve got to figure something out. You’ve got to figure out how to do the work.”

As the person who coined the “suffering” tagline in Sabreland, Regier knew things would be difficult this season. He never saw the worst start in franchise history coming, however.

“No, I didn’t,” he said prior to the Sabres’ 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay on Saturday. “I don’t think anyone did, but you’re here and you have to work your way out of it. We want to make sure people are positive.”

It’s been hard for anyone in the organization to keep his head up so far. The Sabres won just once in the opening 11 games, and they held a lead for only 9 minutes, 35 seconds. They’ve been an embarrassment during first periods. Goals have been nearly non-existent.

It’s disappointing, Regier says, but he’s doing his best to find bright spots.

“When things are tough as they are organizationally and hockey specifically, you have to focus on the things you can do,” he said in Tampa Bay Times Forum. “Whether it’s a player on the ice or a coach or myself, you have to really focus in on the work you’re responsible for and try and do everything you can to contribute to getting out of that situation.

“In all of that, you look for bright spots and you look for growth and you look for things that have to be improved on. I look at this group now, and we’re trying something – assuming the graphic on TV was right – we’re trying something that hasn’t been tried in quite some time with four teenagers in the lineup.”

The four teenagers – Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov – played again Saturday. When they all dressed Friday, the Sabres became the first time since 1996 to have that many teens in a game.

“You look for the growth in that,” Regier said. “It’s really important while they’re playing and while they’re growing we don’t have them in over their heads and they can manage the situation. So far, they’ve been resilient, and they are getting better.”

Zadorov has been a revelation during his opening four games. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman has been a physical force, crushing opponents with body checks while playing a fearless style.

The 18-year-old is in his nine-game tryout period, and the Sabres will use it up before deciding whether to send him back to juniors with London of the Ontario Hockey League.

“It’s only been a couple games, but it’s been a good couple games,” Regier said. “He’s a very good skater. He covers a lot of ice. He’s good with the puck. He likes to play a physical game, but most kids at that age don’t have that strength. That’s maybe the thing that stands out more than anything is his ability to handle big, mature players on the other team.”

Zadorov is part of a defensive corps that has impressed Regier. He looks at Zadorov and fellow first-round picks Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk and Tyler Myers with a glowing eye.

“Our defense is very young,” Regier said of the unit, which has Myers as an elder statesman at age 23. “I can look down the road and feel pretty good about this group as a defense corps for a long time for the organization.

“I think it’s upfront where we’ve got to sort some things out. It’s not as connected as it needs to be.”

The Sabres scored just 17 goals in the opening 12 games. They’d been outshot by an average of 10 per night. They rarely have the puck.

Regier reiterated the only way to improve the team is through the draft. He still talks about it with owner Terry Pegula, who has bought into the plan.

“You have to have high-quality players, and you have to have a number of them,” Regier said. “Free agency wasn’t going to afford us that opportunity, so you have to look back at the draft and realize that most of your ability to add top players to your team is going to come through that process of the draft. The nature of it is it’s slow, and it can be painful.

“The nature of this game is it’s a short-term business but a long-term process. The talent will only grow at the rate it will grow, and it takes time.”

Until everyone matures, Regier will seek out small things while recognizing most other people are looking at him.

“Those are the things underneath the difficult times that you point to, to maintain a level of hope,” Regier said of improvements. “You hope that everyone can see that and kind of grab on to that, and it helps to get through the tough times.”