Ted Nolan gives his players a rope at the start of the season. It’s up to them what they do with it. The Sabres’ coach hopes they climb, but he knows some will fashion a noose.
This year’s team is way better at hangman than hockey.
“I always give our team a 10-game grace period,” Nolan said Wednesday. “You give them a little bit of rope and maybe some will hang themselves. The last 10 or so games, we saw that.
“Taking it easy is over now. We’ve got to work.”
Nolan’s message sank in lap by lap, sweat bead by sweat bead as the Sabres went through one of the hardest practices in years. They didn’t do anything Tuesday during a historically embarrassing loss in Toronto, so Nolan skated their blades dull for 85 minutes in First Niagara Center.
“It was a hard practice, and we didn’t expect anything less after the performance we had,” said forward Torrey Mitchell, whose team hosts Boston tonight in the arena. “I’ve got a feeling that we’re going to respond the right way.”
It’s hard to imagine Buffalo (2-8) getting worse. The Sabres took a franchise-low 10 shots against the Maple Leafs while getting shut out for the fourth time in six games. They’ve scored just 10 goals through 10 games, the fewest since the 1936-37 Chicago Blackhawks and tied for fourth fewest of all time.
“If we play the way we played last night, I’m sure we’ll break more of those records,” Nolan said. “I’ll take full responsibility for that. Maybe I didn’t push them hard enough. But today’s the day we have to start.
“It’s very, very disturbing. It’s mind-baffling. This is our occupation. This is what we do for a profession, and we have to concentrate on what we do.”
Nolan went through the obligatory line changes during practice, most notably dropping Cody Hodgson to the fourth line. The coach swore at him to “wake up” during a drill. Nolan gruffly said Hodgson is “pretty close” to getting scratched after totaling 11 shots and a minus-7 rating.
Hodgson answered “no” when asked if the demotion angered him.
“Honestly, I’m just trying to help the team like I’ve said every time you talk to me about it,” said the winger, who skated with Nicolas Deslauriers and rookie Sam Reinhart. “We’ve got to figure out ways to score goals. We’ve got to figure out line combinations and what we can do on the ice.
“It’s not one person. It’s collectively we need to do this.”
It’s certainly not one person for the Sabres. Their woes are a team-wide problem, and they start at the top.
Entering Wednesday’s schedule, 341 NHL players had scored a goal. The list did not include Matt Moulson, Drew Stafford, Brian Gionta or Chris Stewart, the first-line left winger and the top three right wingers.
“There’s a lot of us that are not doing enough to get the puck in the net,” Moulson said. “It’s hard to score when you don’t have any shots.”
The Sabres have just 25 shots during the last two games. They aren’t getting close to the net because their passing is sloppy, their decision-making is poor and their races to the puck are one-sided losses.
“We’ve just got to find ways to do the right thing,” Gionta said. “We’ve talked about it enough. We’ve beaten it down. Everybody knows what needs to be done. We’re just not doing it.
“The way we’re playing, guys should not be happy about it.”
There was some anger shown during the rough workout – Chris Stewart and Mike Weber had audible outbursts and a few sticks slammed off the boards – but most players kept their heads down and skated.
“Right now we’ve got a quiet group of athletes,” Nolan said. “I’ve learned a long time ago from one of the best coaches ever in the game, Fred Shero, and he said, ‘You have to learn to win with what you’ve got or you don’t win at all.’
“We’ve got some good characters on this team. I’ve never doubted that. Sometimes we get caught up in wishing for things to turn around versus working for things to turn around. We’ve got to start working instead of wishing.”
Jhonas Enroth will start in goal for the Sabres, while Reinhart will play the final game of his nine-game tryout. General Manager Tim Murray will then decide whether to keep the second overall pick in Buffalo or send him back to junior.
Nolan will decide what the other players do. Their rope has been reeled in.
“You’ve got to earn it from now on,” center Zemgus Girgensons said. “If you’re not going to work, you’re not going to play.”