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COMMENTARY

The Sabres insist otherwise, but this sure feels like last year all over again

Mike Harrington

The party line as the SS Pegula runs aground for another season is this isn't last year. That team that shot to the top of the NHL standings and then fell back down the hill uncontrollably? It was much different than this one.

Sure could have fooled me.

The Sabres ended October No. 1 in the NHL's overall standing. Doesn't seem possible now that they're just six points from the basement.

How can that be? How long will that last? Right now, they look like the worst team in the NHL. Tuesday's 4-1 loss to a Minnesota team that entered the night in 31st place was an embarrassment, a no-show of the highest order.

General Manager Jason Botterill has overplayed his hand and is now completely stuck. He has too many defensemen and not enough forwards. He obviously needs to trade for scoring help, but who's going to help a guy backed so far into a corner fix a team that's just plain soft?

"We’re actively looking to see if we can make our team a little better and find a forward out there to help our group," Botterill told reporters before the game after returning from GM meetings in Toronto.

The Wraparound: Minnesota Wild 4, Buffalo Sabres 1

Better get a move on that, Jason. Like how about maybe before the plane leaves for Boston on Wednesday afternoon? This team needs help.

I asked Botterill before the game about the notion this is a repeat of last year, and at least he didn't shy away from it.

"I'd just say that's something we have to prove – that it's not," he said.

They're failing. Ralph Krueger, as pleasant a chap as we've seen as a head coach here in quite a while, gets his hackles up when last year is brought up, as if it's from the silent-movie era. He needs to understand it's the most relevant thing about this fragile group.

"I can't speak for the past. Fragile for me would be a group completely coming apart and not working towards solutions and/or pointing fingers," Krueger insisted. "The good thing is I don't see any of that."

Maybe not yet. They certainly came apart in March. Things were pretty ugly Tuesday when Jack Eichel, of all people, decided to throw down against defenseless Minnesota forward Joel Eriksson Ek.

"Obviously things haven't been going our way," said Eichel. "Just trying to spark some energy."

"He's our leader and he showed it tonight, and he's been showing it the last few games," said alternate captain Jake McCabe. "It should be a wakeup call to everyone in this room, especially myself. You need to look at yourself in the mirror, everyone in here, and we all need to be better."

"What Jack did there was a sign of leadership, was a sign of passion and a willingness to change this," Krueger said.

Botterill continues to draft well and fumble things at the NHL level. It's hard to fathom why Colin Miller and now Marco Scandella are in the press box taking up millions of cap space. Jimmy Vesey has exactly no goals, and I can guarantee you Jason Pominville or Thomas Vanek would have been more productive.

It was Botterill who foolishly re-signed both Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson, which was not necessary. One or the other would have been fine. Walking away from both would have been fine, too.

Eichel should sue for nonsupport. He's got five of the team's last six goals. Jeff Skinner, he of the eight-year, $72 million contract, has one goal this month, and the special teams have quickly become a colossal embarrassment.

The power play is 0 for 21 in the last eight games and 2 for 37 over the last 13, an unfathomable swing after the dominance it showed off the hop in October. The penalty kill has allowed a power-play goal for six straight games and is 17 for 25. That's 68%, a gross figure for a stretch when you consider that 18 teams entered Tuesday over 80% for the season.

Botterill has plenty of concerns. Some are hockey and some are life.

He's got major salary cap issues once Zach Bogosian returns, which could be this weekend. More finagling will need to be done with long-term injured reserve to help out. Casey Mittelstadt doesn't have a point in 11 games, and his grievous turnover led to the game's first goal. He's playing like a kid who should be in Rochester and who perhaps should have stayed for his sophomore year at the University of Minnesota.

As for Kyle Okposo, he suffered another concussion Saturday. He was seen walking in the arena Tuesday, certainly a good sign. But the Sabres have to get him healthy first and then perhaps have a serious discussion with him about his future.

"You appreciate and respect what he brings to our team and what he means to our locker room and the man that he is," Botterill said. "You don't want to see anyone have a concussion. Right now the focus is just making sure Kyle is all right and get him back to normal health."

The injuries have just made everything feel even more dire. It's easy to forget there are still 61 games left. That, of course, might be a curse, too.

"Listen, we're all in this together. No one is feeling sorry for us," Eichel said. "We can't feel sorry for ourselves. It's frustrating the position that we're in, but it's just going to test our character right now and our will to compete on a nightly basis."

Perhaps the night's coup de grace came late in the second period. You know that fan with the shrill, huge pipes for a voice we've heard near the press box over the years in the Section 316-317 area?

Yeah, the one who trademarked "Firrrrre Re-gieeeeeerr" and "Make a moooove, Murrrrrrrr-ay." Well, he came up with a new one with a nod to the times Tuesday night, and the current GM is in his crosshairs.

At a perfectly quiet moment, we got "Im-peeeeeeeach Bot-ter-illllllllll."

Sure seems like last year around here again. And, in fact, a lot of last years.

 

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