Monday, October 21, 2013

It's a long season

The Buffalo Sabres recently tied a franchise record for longest winless streak at the start of the season. People no doubt were wondering what it was like inside the Sabres' offices during such a stretch.

Been there, done that.

The 1990-91 edition of the Sabres also went seven games without a loss. Take it from someone in the public relations department of the team, it seemed like an eternity. Everyone had a feeling that was along the lines of "we're never going to win a game."

Remember, that team was coming off one of its best regular seasons in recent memory. It had 98 points, only to get a tough draw in the first round of the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens and exit in six games. But it didn't help at the start. I can still remember when the streak ended that Channel 2 running a crawl announcing that the Sabres had won a game, complete with exclamation points.

Usually, this is the time when I might preach patience for the current edition of the Sabres. After all, the 1990-91 team actually rebounded and made the playoffs. A team can go winless for seven games at any point of the season, but it sure looks a lot worse when it is in the start of the season than it does in February. That zero in the win column of the league standings after two weeks can be haunting.

I like to quote former Canisius basketball coach Nick Macarchuk. He once pointed out after a game that when his team was trailing by 10-0, it sounded a lot worse than it was. The Griffins had something like 36 minutes to make up the deficit against Vermont, and it did. But it's human nature to look at the first four minutes and wonder if it's the start of a trend that will last throughout the game.

The talk around Buffalo hockey circles, fan division, is about the need for some drastic move in the hockey department, meaning the departure of general manager Darcy Regier and/or coach Ron Rolston. Granted, I'm a voice in the wilderness for keeping Regier around. That's partly because I'm a believer that if you think you have good people, you accept the inevitable ups and downs by keeping them and figure tomorrow will be better. Regier's record hasn't been great, but it has often been good, The team rarely has been awful during his tenure on the job, and there have been some unusual circumstances surrounding the team (ownership actions, bankruptcy, budget restraints, etc.) at times.

It's an easy jump from keeping Regier to keeping Rolston. A decision was made in the summer to bring Rolston back, and Regier said at the time that hard times were probably ahead. Oh, and if you fire Regier, you probably get rid of Rolston as well, because every general manager wants his own coach watching out for his decisions on the ice. Besides, do you fire a coach who has been on the job on a full-time basis for 10 games?

But that rational - at least I think it's rational - line of thinking may get thrown out in the relatively near future. The difficult circumstances are tightening by the game. The fan base is still looking for a scapegoat from the letdown it suffered when the team didn't meet the high expectations felt when Terry Pegula took over as owner. Lindy Ruff's departure just wasn't enough.

The team's two best players, Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, are potentially gone by the end of the season. Without them, there would be two fewer reasons to buy tickets - as if the current product's entertainment level isn't dreary enough to get people in the mood to start saving for lacrosse tickets. Economics usually drives these arguments anyway - when people start voting with their wallets, it gets attention.

I would suspect we'd follow the usual order of actions here when a team is losing. There is some reshuffling of the lineup via recalls from the minor league team, and then there's a trade or two of less than major significance.

But after a few more weeks of uninspired, less-than-entertaining hockey, all bets are off.

(P.S. As we discovered, Regier jumped a step or two when he received a good offer from the Islanders for Vanek. The point remains the same.)

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