Niagara Gazette

December 30, 2008

SCHMITT: Sabres out of tricks, and it's early

Tim Schmitt

BUFFALO — So much for holiday spirit. Peace on Earth, goodwill to men. Shiny, happy people.

Tuesday night at HSBC Arena had none of it. Instead, as the home team headed to the locker room for the second intermission on the wrong side of a 3-0 score, the catcalls came swirling down from those angry they’d given up a piece of their Christmas break for this.

Could you blame them? Let’s face it — Tuesday was not a banner day for the Buffalo sports fan.

First, Ralph Wilson decided he didn’t have the energy to start a new era in Bills history, so he kept the same coach that just botched an entire half a football season.

Then, the Sabres followed suit by pulling a no-show against a Washington team they thoroughly embarrassed in the same building back in November.

Buffalo got outworked, and simply looked outclassed. And it wasn’t just Alexander Ovechkin who looked head and shoulders above the Sabres.

Here’s all you need to know: After the locals scored their lone goal — by offensive juggernaut Adam Mair, mind you — they followed with a shift where they couldn’t clear their own zone for nearly a minute.

Some momentum.

What’s really upsetting about the Sabres’ sluggish start was that it offered the team its first chance to atone for Saturday’s horrible collapse against the New York Islanders.

Remember Saturday? Up two goals with less than two minutes to play at home against the league’s worst team, the Sabres needed a shootout to slip out with two points.

Buffalo’s first two minutes on Tuesday were just as bad, as a quick penalty turned into a quick goal, and Buffalo couldn’t get even again. And it could have been worse than the 4-1 final — the world’s best player, Ovechkin, missed on a breakaway.

Now here’s what’s really depressing — the Sabres have already played all their trump cards and we’re not even halfway home. It’s still the 2008 portion of the 2008-09 season and the moves Darcy Regier had stashed deep up his sleeve have already been revealed.

Nathan Gerbe? The spunky little guy who made an instant impact in the AHL has yet to do anything with the big boys. He’s quick, but not lightning fast. And he might not be worth keeping up for the rest of this season if it means losing him a year earlier to free agency. He could be a big-time NHL player. He clearly isn’t yet.

How about Tim Kennedy? Many hoped the local kid could make the jump straight to the NHL, but in his one appearance he hardly distinguished himself from the pack of third- and fourth-liners the Sabres have been shuffling and reshuffling.

Finally, there’s Chris Butler. The stay-at-home defenseman was a deep sleeper to see time here — only if the defense really needed a shake-up. Butler has proven steady with captain Craig Rivet on the shelf, but the team has hardly rallied with him in the lineup, winning just two of six.

The three wild cards Regier had at his disposal have all been played. The result? Buffalo has gone home a loser 20 times in 37 games.

At this point, you’d assume the Sabres will be forced to start dealing. Max Afinogenov and his $3.5-million contract were a healthy scratch Tuesday. So was Nathan Paetsch, whose future on the team appears etched in stone considering Butler has instantly leapfrogged him for playing time.

Ales Kotalik would be a good choice, too, since he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. And the Tim Connolly saga drags painfully on. Lindy Ruff said Monday that Connolly is “a ways away.”

One thing is certain — this roster, the one built for the future on the foundation of Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht, doesn’t look dynamic enough to go it alone.

Miller has been average. Vanek has been good, but hasn’t made enough plays to keep his team in it every night. Roy continues to reveal inconsistencies — he followed a great game on Saturday with one of his worst on Tuesday.

And Jochen Hecht is stealing his nearly $4 million at this point — his 13 points in 27 games are simply not worthy of the deal he signed last October. There’s a reason why Hecht never scored 20 goals prior to last season — he shoots from poor angles and gets pickpocketed by stronger players whenever he’s down low.

Can Buffalo still make the playoffs? Sure. The East is weak, and a hot streak can keep them afloat. Even just a resurgent Miller could push them as high as sixth.

But the cracks have clearly been exposed. Without new parts, the Sabres are destined to stay near the middle of the conference standings. And those parts are all signed to long-term deals.

Regier has been a master in dealing in the past.

The only way his team moves forward is if he can find some new tricks to play.

Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.