Monday, March 30, 2009

Ax the coach

The noise has been getting louder among Western New York hockey fans lately. The Sabres are edging closer to the exit door of the playoff race, and people are anxious to find a scapegoat or two.

But who?

More to the point, why?

There's always a rush to start throwing people, particular management, under the bus in professional sports when a team fails to meet a goal. In the Sabres' case, they probably aren't going to participate in the playoffs once again, so there's talk along those lines. I'm not sure that's particularly fair.

The Sabres really couldn't be expected to do much more this season than sneak into the playoffs. They had some young talent that needed time to develop. If you had told me in October that Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek would miss significant playing time to injury in the second half of the season, when the Sabres didn't have a postseason spot wrapped up, I would have guessed that they would have fallen short of the playoffs.

It's easy to blame the so-called talk-radio mentality for this sort of mindset. The team doesn't win a championship, the thinking goes, and someone is responsible. So let's start over. No doubt there's a little of that going on here. But one team out of 30 wins in the NHL; the ratios are similar in other sports. That means everyone but one city is disappointed at season's end.

It would be nice to be the Detroit Red Wings and have a chance at that championship year after year, but not too many teams have that sort of luxury. The Sabres probably don't have the resources to do that, as judged by some of their moves in the scouting department (in other words, scouts do have plenty of value). The Sabres have to be content with judging talent wisely and hoping that a group grows together to become title contenders every so often.

General manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff have done that. They reached the finals in their second year together, coming within a Brett Hull "goal" of playing a Game Seven for the championship with the world's best goalie on their side. In 2006, the Sabres were a period away from beating Carolina in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference finals and a date with a weak Edmonton team in the Cup finals. If they had one more healthy defenseman, they might have won the Cup right there. A year later, the team won the Presidents Trophy and certainly could have been a champion until Ottawa got in the way in the playoffs. As general managers have said forever, you don't get that many kicks at the can.

That's a pretty good record. Think the Bills would like it?

Sure, Regier and Ruff have made mistakes on personnel. Max Afinogenov's talent level is seductive, but he's never done enough with it on a consistent level. Ruff has never seem to grasp the concept of having a backup goaltender who is ready to contribute when needed. And so on.

Sometimes professional sports teams fall apart for a variety of reasons, look more or less dead in competition, and the fans vote for change with their wallets by staying home. See the Syracuse football program for reference. Sometimes the coach and general manager don't get along.

That's all not happening here. The best move often is doing nothing at all, and letting those with a good track record continue to do their jobs. Sounds like it fits a description of the Sabres to me.

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