Sabres staring down the reality of having to start over

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 31: Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (9) appears to be grimacing during warmups prior to the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres NHL game on February 25, 2021, at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY. (Photo by John Crouch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It's once again reached the point where the shift-over-shift dysfunction is the least of the Buffalo Sabres' concerns.

That isn't to say that two weekend losses to the Philadelphia Flyers — in which the Sabres failed to muster a single goal — isn't worth mentioning, but it seems clear we've already re-reached the familiar point where the results of games involving Buffalo do not matter.

At least for the Sabres.

With four regulation wins in 19 games inside arguably the toughest division carved out of the NHL's re-alignment scheme, the Sabres require nothing less than a miracle to avoid failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 10th consecutive season.

It's a record of futility, and now another serious low, that has those who have experienced it from front to back drawing conclusions like this:

Boy oh boy.

Instead of important games down the stretch in front of fans eagerly awaiting the opportunity to bust through the concourse doors, it seems it's time for another set of new plans to be drawn up in response to the many abject failures, the breaking points being reached, and the cost of doing it all over again.

But as widespread as the issues are and have been, all actionable items and considerations still hinge on one thing: the status of star forward Jack Eichel.

It's been a difficult season for Eichel to say the least. The $10 million-per-season centre hasn't scored since late January and has recorded just 14 points on the season. While his impact has waned considerably, his issues pale in comparison to the struggles plaguing the two most talented forwards (and the team's second- and third-highest paid players) brought in to play with and placate Eichel.

Combined this season, Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner have contributed one goal to the cause.

What we have seen from these players in particular has been worse than even the lowest expectations, and for that reason, much of the responsibility falls on Eichel, the other high-paid players and what's left of the roster.

But what seems to remain true is that the Sabres must cater to Eichel completely, or risk losing him entirely.

Rumours of Eichel wanting to be traded had graduated beyond the whisper stage before the disastrous start to the season. Now that we're in the midst of it, examples of a deteriorating relationship between star and franchise seem to be playing out in real time.

It became abundantly clear over the weekend that Eichel and Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger weren't on the same page, at least in one regard. Eichel contradicted his coach's assertion that he was hurt, and therefore had to miss consecutive games, with an injury suffered in warmups last Thursday, telling reporters that the injury actually was suffered in a loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday.

This meant Krueger either unaware of the health status of his star forward or served up the weakest attempt at gamesmanship imaginable, and put an injured player on the ice in order to accomplish it.

Krueger is immensely respected in hockey circles, despite having one foot in the space and one foot outside of it in his recent career history. But the fact of the matter is that Krueger, who left a high-profile executive gig with English soccer club Southampton to take his second NHL job, has virtually no track record of success coaching at the top level, failing to elevate the bad teams he's coached to the tune of a career .471 winning percentage.

A decision made on Krueger, be it to stay the course or for ownership to stomach the few million dollars remaining on the coach's deal. It's believed the coach has one season left on his current contract beyond this one. But it won't matter who's in charge of the team if the roster doesn't improve in a dramatic way.

Since being handed the job following the dismissal of Jason Botterill, Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams has brought in a recent Hart Trophy winner in Hall, two reasonably serviceable centres in Eric Staal and Cody Eakin, and together they have brought no tangible benefit to the team.

If nothing else, it provided proof that this is not a team that is a tweak here or there away from being in the mix. This is a decidedly well-below average outfit proving to be victim of the clear divide between competitive and non-competitive in the NHL's East Division.

Buffalo is too far into its rebuild to rescue it. The anchors aren't budging from the bottom of the sea floor.

It's time to start fresh.

Who will be around for it, to plan it, to execute it?

And most importantly, where does that leave Jack Eichel?

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