NEW YORK – As a seventh lost season nears its merciful end and a roster overhaul beckons, the search for the holy grail continues.
Accountability is harder to find than a playoff spot.
The Buffalo Sabres continue to look for locker-room leaders, the guys who refuse to lose and insist others adopt the same attitude. It's a mindset needed not only from game to game, but shift to shift.
"We've had new management, new coaches in here this year, and we've got to really look at ourselves and try and change things," alternate captain Kyle Okposo said Saturday before a 5-1 loss to the New York Rangers.
General Manager Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley have brought winning pedigrees, but the Sabres still have guys who struggle to compete nightly. Housley called out his leadership group after Friday's loss to Montreal, and the team talked about his comments Saturday.
There weren't any hurt feelings, but the incident did reignite chatter about flaws inside the Sabres' dressing room. Accountability remains one.
"It's something that you have to have on a team," Okposo said in Madison Square Garden. "Phil's doing a pretty good job of that, holding guys accountable in the meetings and in video. But I think we have to do a better job with each other and holding each other accountable to a standard that we really want to meet.
"It's something that we've got to fix."
As the numbers show – Buffalo is last in the NHL in most meaningful categories – the organization desperately needs an influx of talent at every position. But it's the no-show nights that have driven away the fans. A consistent effort shouldn't be too much to ask, but apparently it is.
"It's the other areas of the game – it's checking detail, it's the battle – those are the things we're looking at," Housley said. "It's that one-on-one puck battle that we need to win more of at this time of the year because of the position we're in, and that's sort of the message we're trying to put forth moving forward here."
While professional athletes should always be ready, there's no denying Buffalo's last-place standing has beaten the drive out of some guys. Though never acceptable, lackluster efforts would at least be understandable late in the year. But it has been a seasonlong problem, one that goes back much further than October.
Guys think they're working hard, but there's no real measuring stick in the room. Ryan O'Reilly has appeared in two playoff series in nine seasons, never advancing past the first round. Okposo missed the postseason in six of nine seasons with the New York Islanders. Rasmus Ristolainen has experienced loss after loss after loss during his five years in the NHL.
The guys who've enjoyed success, including Stanley Cup-winning forwards Jordan Nolan and Scott Wilson, are role players who can't put a team on their back.
It adds up to no-show nights or, at the very least, no-show shifts.
"We all can be better," Okposo said. "The team is moving in a direction that we all don't want it to. It's maybe going sideways a little bit. We play a couple good games, play a couple bad games. That's not something that we want to be doing, and it seems like it's gone on for a long time.
"It's up to us to try and fix that."
The Sabres want to change the culture of their room, but instead they're showing young guys such as Brendan Guhle, Casey Nelson, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste how to slack off. Is that a worry?
"Yup, absolutely," Okposo said. "We've got to go to work every day."
Though not named directly by Housley on Friday, center Jack Eichel knows he was in the group that was called out. It wasn't so much his work ethic but his desire to freewheel and not do what he was asked.
"I just need to be better," Eichel said. "All of us need to be better. Obviously, it's not good enough. It's look in the mirror. All you can really do is control yourself. You can't look to anyone else to be better."
Actually, they can. It's called asking people to be accountable.
"We all can step up in our own ways," Okposo said. "I put more pressure on myself than anybody else does, and I want to succeed more than anything. It's been a tough year for me like that, but I go into every game and I try and be the best player I can be, try and be the best player on the ice."
When they're not the best player they can be, someone needs to tell them. If it didn't hurt when Housley called them out, it shouldn't linger if a teammate does.
"We're all professionals here," Eichel said. "We're all grown men. I don't think anyone's feelings are getting hurt, so I don't think anyone has a problem with that and holding people accountable.
"It needs to happen. It's happened with a lot of teams I've played on. There's no reason that it shouldn't happen here."