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Sabres are a better team, but not in a better place

The Buffalo Sabres went 0-12 last January. It was the worst month in franchise history, with eight road losses capped by a hat trick of despair in Western Canada. The final defeat, the team-record 14th in row dating to just before the new year, came in Vancouver and led former winger Chris Stewart to call the whole thing “disgusting.”

It was one of the worst months for any team in NHL history. And General Manager Tim Murray did nothing. No trades, no waivers, no call-ups. No mercy firing of Ted Nolan. Had Murray lost his mind? Of course not. He knew darn well what he was doing. So did we.

The Sabres are obviously a better team this year any way you want to look at it. There’s brute numbers, there’s analytics and for the old-schoolers, there’s the eye test. But the GM can’t sit idly by this January.

There were a lot of Pollyanna dreams of the playoffs after Jack Eichel walked across the draft stage in Sunrise, Fla., and donned his No. 15 jersey for the first time last summer. There were also the reasonable points of view preaching patience for a rebuild that certainly wasn’t going to get done in one year.

But no one expected this. The Sabres finished 30th – as in dead last – in the NHL’s overall standing the last two seasons. They could actually do it again this year. They slipped to 29th Saturday night when Edmonton jumped over them by beating Arizona in a shootout.

Coach Dan Bylsma could only shake his head when asked about the team’s return trip to the league’s netherworld after Saturday’s gut-punch, a 4-3 loss to Detroit that kept the Sabres last in the Atlantic Division and dropped them 11 points behind the Wings. They’ve lost four straight games for the first time all season and the high of that five-goal third period last weekend in Boston is long gone.

“We felt like with some victories adding points, we’d be right in the mix with the teams that are contending,” Bylsma said. “With the way this team has played, how hard we’ve played, I am a little bit shocked that we’re where we’re at.”

“We’re not happy with where we are,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “We all expect more out of ourselves. There’s always a learning curve and a process to be dealt with and we’re still going through that in terms of how to be a good, consistent team.”

The Sabres remain woefully thin in some areas. They need another strong winger, or two. They need another top-four defenseman. Better depth on the fourth line. And they need to find a No. 1 goalie.

They might have one in house when Robin Lehner returns to action. Lehner has to be the main storyline for the final 35 or so games of this season, once he gets his rehab work done in Rochester. Bylsma has to play him as often as possible so the Sabres see what they have going forward.

The Sabres have probably gone as far as they could go with Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark splitting games for three months. Both have been pretty good in spurts but Johnson was not at his best Saturday, giving up four goals on 23 shots and getting burned by Tomas Tatar’s slapshot for the game-winner with 2:50 left.

It was Buffalo’s 13th one-goal loss of the season, a tough number to stomach. Want some more? The Sabres lead the league at home in both regulation losses (12) and total losses (14). There’s a lot of lost points right there.

Through 39 games last year, they had 31 points and a minus-58 goal differential. Through 39 this year, they have 34 points and are minus-14. Improvement.

And they have Eichel on their team. They’re just not getting enough from their veterans. Eichel has 13 goals, tied with Detroit’s Dylan Larkin for tops among NHL rookies, and is creeping back into the Calder Trophy talk. When compared to Eichel, what do Matt Moulson, Tyler Ennis, Brian Gionta, Marcus Foligno and Johan Larsson all have in common? They have 14 goals. Combined among all of them.

There’s more trouble from the returnees. Zach Bogosian backed in too far on Tatar’s winning goal and was then stopped on a breakaway in the final 90 seconds when a goal would have tied the game. After his long injury absence to start the year, Bogosian isn’t nearly the player he was after showing up from Winnipeg in February.

It was a shame too, because the Sabres have given the Wings fits all year. In all three meetings, Buffalo has wiped out deficits. The first two, both in Joe Louis Arena, produced a win and a shootout loss. Saturday was wasted Eichel Magic.

“It’s nice to show that we have some fight but we have to be able to finish a little better,” Bogosian said. Of the winning goal, Bogosian said he had to watch more replays but said glumly, “It happened quick. He cuts to the middle, quick shot on net.”

The Sabres are 1-4-1 in their last six. They face red-hot Florida here Tuesday, then have road games in Chicago, Winnipeg and Minnesota, followed by home games against Boston and Washington on back-to-back nights. They are in serious trouble.

They battle but they’re still overmatched. It’s the GM’s job to keep fixing that. Waiting until the summer isn’t acceptable.

“If care was a factor and something we were concerned about, we’d have issues,” Gorges said. “That’s not a cause for concern with this group. We know that guys care. We fight. Guys play for the guy beside him.”

“I think everyone needs to look in the mirror,” Bogosian said. “Whether they’re open about it or not, as a team we have to be better.”