Underachieving Sabres spiraling out of control

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

DETROIT -- This is not what Terry Pegula paid for.

The billionaire bought the Buffalo Sabres for $189 million last February. He choked up talking about his boyhood heroes, talked about winning the Stanley Cup, declared he would spare no expense.

Then he spared no expense. He entertained the players' fathers on his yacht in Florida. He made a splash in free agency and pushed the payroll to the salary cap. He spent millions more on arena renovations – a new coat of paint and a new dressing room. Hell, he even bought the Sabres' minor-league team.

And yet here he was Monday night at Joe Louis Arena, watching a miserable 5-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings from a vinyl barstool in a cramped press box, trudging down a dingy stairwell afterward, ducking into the visitors' room with three executives trailing behind. The Sabres' PR staff said he was unavailable for interviews. Apparently he didn't speak to the players, either.

What would he say?

"It's not up to him to say anything to us," captain Jason Pominville said. "It's tough, because he's done his part. He's done more than his part. He's given everything to us to have success. It's up to us to give back, and right now, we're just not doing a good enough job."

If there were any lingering fantasies that Pegula had purchased a golden ticket to Stanley Cup contention, they might have been brought back to reality here.

The Sabres lost their ninth straight on the road. They committed their trademark breakdowns and turnovers, and they were burned by a perennial powerhouse, the Red Wings, who won their 15th straight at home – a franchise record and the NHL's longest streak since 1976.

Goaltender Ryan Miller, who has fallen so far since leading the United States to silver at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, got yanked early in the second period in his home state, in front of his family and friends and against his brother Drew.

"It's embarrassing," he said. "Everybody came to watch Drew and I play. At least they got to watch Drew perform."

The Sabres are 11th in the Eastern Conference. They're seven points out of a playoff spot – not an insurmountable amount – but their next five games are on the road.

Pegula has said he will not fire general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff, who have been together in Buffalo since 1997 – the longest-tenured tandem in the league. He has said it so often that he would lose credibility now if he did fire either of them. Regier has been historically reluctant to make major moves, but even if he makes some now – with more financial freedom, under more pressure – how much good would they do?

Would the Sabres make the playoffs?

If they did, so what? Would they get out of the first round?

Miller was asked what this team needs. A shake-up? Multiple players traded? A new coach? He started out with a standard non-answer, then revved up his emotions to the point of profanity.

"That's not my decision," Miller told a group of reporters. "If it's going to happen, it's going to happen in the locker room. If you guys really think there's going to be any kind of trade made anywhere that's going to affect this team any more than we can affect it in this locker room, you guys are just … I don't know what to think, because there's no such trade.

"There's not ever going to be a trade in the history of the NHL that's going to affect anything like that. There's no chance anybody comes into this team and just shakes it up, or we can even move multiple players and get any kind of return … "

He didn't finish his sentence. He started over.

"If you want to just destroy a team and just go out and be reckless and do something, yeah," he said. "Then there's going to be new guys in here. But other than that, this locker room's going to be pretty much the same, if not completely the same, and we've got to find it from in here. We can't sit and wait for somebody else to [expletive] do it."

Can it be done?

"Well, we've been good before," Miller said. "And for some reason, it's just a search right now, and I guess we've got to stop being nice. That's what it comes down to."

Interesting way to put it. The Sabres were 10-5-0 on Nov. 12 as they entered Boston to face the big, bad Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions. Milan Lucic ran over Miller, giving him a concussion. None of the Sabres responded. The Sabres have gone 9-16-5 since.

Pominville called it a "coincidence." If it is, it's a heck of a coincidence.

Pegula blamed the Sabres' struggles on injuries in an interview with the Buffalo News, and there is no doubt injuries have been a major issue. The team has been ravaged.

But injuries don't explain the mistakes being made by players who would be in the lineup even if it were fully healthy – defensemen Jordan Leopold and Mike Weber each were minus-4 on Monday night – and injuries don't explain the lack of attention to detail, the lack of confidence and the lack of heart. This team needs help at center, as one scout said, but it needs more than that. Size. Toughness. Grit. A spark. Something.

When Pegula was introduced last February, he put his faith in Regier and Ruff. "Panic doesn't seem to work," he said then. "Our feeling is, you pick good people, and you try to stick with them."

Pegula was right in principle, and it seemed fair to see what Regier and Ruff could do without the budget limitations of the past. Regier acquired forward Brad Boyes and his $4 million salary. He traded for the rights to defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and signed him to a 10-year, $40 million contract before he hit free agency. He signed forward Ville Leino to a six-year, $27 million free-agent deal.

But none of those moves have paid off. All three players have missed time with injuries. Each has only three goals. And they're far from alone in their underachievement. Except for Pominville (44 points) and Thomas Vanek (41), perhaps no one is playing up to his potential, and the team is less than the sum of its parts.

Pegula, once celebrated for those tears of boyish joy in his eyes, is now criticized for being blinded by them – for using injuries as an excuse, for being in denial of the hard truth.

Money does not buy championships.

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