There are plenty of things wrong with the Sabres, but captain Brian Gionta literally laughed at one prevailing theory.
“Systems don’t matter one bit,” Gionta said Monday. “Teams that make the playoffs year in and year out, it’s not because of their system. It’s because of how they’re playing in that system.”
Minutes later, Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma echoed the comments.
“You would be real shocked at how similar the systems are from team to team,” Bylsma said in KeyBank Center. “There are some variances and there are different ways to play D-zone coverage, but they’re strikingly similar from team to team. The difference is in the mentality of how you bring it and how you execute within that system.”
At least the coach and captain are on the same page. Judging by the results heading into Tuesday’s game in Ottawa, it’s clear not everyone is.
“We get ourselves in trouble by not executing the way we’re supposed to, the way we want to as a group,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “When we get away from that and we get individualistic, as a group we’re not a good team.”
It showed Sunday during a 4-2 loss to Vancouver, a setback accompanied by the words “gross” and “disrespectful.” The Sabres have been good with words, not so good with actions.
“It’s to the point where you’re beating a dead horse with what you’re saying,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “You can say all you want, but guys have got to perform.”
With a 23-23-10 record and sitting in 24th place overall, the Sabres are not performing. The question is why.
It sure seems like the Sabres have an identity crisis, a disconnect between some players and the coaches. When they go off script, it’s usually because of the individualistic tendencies that Gorges referenced. Rather than chip in the puck, make an easy pass or defend the slot, players try an extra juke, a long pass or chase the puck-carrier.
It happens way too often, a sign of players not embracing or believing in the system – hence the theory that Buffalo is playing the wrong system.
“It’s on us to take the system that’s in place and play it for each other,” Gionta said. “There’s very subtle differences between systems. We look at tape every single day of every other team. There’s maybe two types of forechecks. There’s maybe a couple different ways to play D-zone. It’s a matter of doing it as a group, not having one guy do one thing and two other guys doing a different thing.
“It’s nothing that we haven’t talked about as a group. You can beat it down, but it’s us playing within the system, playing into our strengths. Those strengths are forechecking, playing in our zone. When we get away from that after having talked about it, it gets frustrating.
“There’s a point when we have to look in the mirror and figure out what you’re doing as an individual to help this team.”
During Bylsma’s first training camp, the buzzword was “pace.”
“We want to execute and play at a pace that’s higher than the opposition, one that forces them to deal with our team and our speed,” Bylsma said in the fall of 2015.
This season, the Sabres have talked about slowing things down. They say they’re not a run-and-gun team. After Sunday’s loss, goaltender Robin Lehner referred to Buffalo as a “grinding hockey team.”
That seems like a huge shift in philosophy in 17 months.
“I don’t think it’s any different,” McCabe said. “We still want to challenge guys with our speed in the right situation. Speed and grinding can go hand-in-hand with forecheck.”
“Playing with pace, playing with speed is just as much about grinding,” he said. “Everyone thinks playing a grinding game is a boring game, but it’s making the right read and getting the puck behind their D, wearing their team down.
“We have to take advantage of making the right play, the simple play at times. Not dumbing it down. It’s none of that. Make the play when it’s there, and the time’s that it’s not there, we need to stick with the identity that we’re pushing it behind their D and we’re using our forecheck.
“We’re a good forechecking team. We’re a good offensive-zone team. The more that we can get to that, the better we’re going to be, the more momentum we’re going to have in games and the better chance we’re going to give ourselves to win games.”
Teams that don’t win games endure changes. The trade deadline is two weeks away. Buffalo is sitting in seller status.
“We obviously want to make the playoffs,” McCabe said. “To go along with that, we have a good group of guys in here. It’s no fun outside looking in, then come trade deadline you see guys go to other teams and you see buddies leave. That’s no fun.
“That’s almost a little extra motivation to string some games together here. Not only to get in the playoff race, but to show that this is the group that can get it done. We want to stick together and make things happen.”
The Sabres have had plenty of chances to make things happen. Instead, they have losses like the one Sunday.
“We’ve had opportunities at different times this year, big games to get back in the playoff picture,” Bylsma said. “It’s disappointing to see at pretty much every one of those situations we haven’t risen to the occasion. That’s the challenge and the growth of our team. We’ve got to get ourselves into these big games and we have to respond in those big games, with not only our play but how we play.
“That’s been the struggle of our team, and that’s a tough one to keep the even-keel face through.”