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Sabres Central

No hitting, no hustle, no heart
By Rick Anderson
February 18, 2000

Where has the "hardest working team in hockey" gone? The Buffalo Sabres who used to wear that motto proudly can no longer be associated with anything related with "hardest working" unless it applies to hardest working for excuses.

It's gone on and on all season. The Sabres play one game in which everyone shows up, the forwards are hitting everything in sight, the powerplay is clicking and Buffalo either wins or ties against a strong opponent. The next game it looks as if a different team has shown up wearing the same uniforms. No hitting, no hustle, no heart. That's the difference from this team and the one that blitzed through the playoffs last season and came two games from winning the Stanley Cup.

Excuses and bemoaning have become rampant on the Sabres this season, from the coaches on down to the stick boy. The Sabres have used all the excuses in the book this year and have also acknowledged that they are not playing with the intensity of previous seasons. Comments from Sabres coach Lindy Ruff like "the effort was not there tonight" or "the team can't expect to win many games when they only score 1 or 2 a game" hits the matter squarely on the nail. However, talk is cheap. The players are also critical of their own play and expresses it night in and night out. But what does it accomplish? The players may vent about their ineffective play but are not doing anything about it.

Where can the blame for the current lackluster play be pointed to? It can be spread around evenly. The coaching staff lacks any offensive creativity whatsoever. That can be expected as both Ruff and Mike Ramsey were defense men in their playing days. For those two to be able to teach the young players the fundamentals of an effective offensive system is like asking a auto mechanic to teach computer networking to high school students. The students probably know more than their teachers in this case. Maxim Afinogenov was a wonder boy, the next Gilbert Perreault when he stepped onto the ice for the first time this autumn. He had dazzling speed and moves that left opposing defensemen in his tracks. After playing in Ruff's defensive-orientated system for the past 3 months, Afinogenov has inherited all the bad traits and habits of the rest of his teammates have displayed this season. In other words, Ruff's system is ruining a potential superstar.

What Maxim needs is an offensive coach who actually knows the offensive schematics that are successful in the NHL. Ruff, Ramsey and the other coach on the staff, Don Lever probably have as much offensive smarts as a Pee Wee coach. What's wrong with the Sabres' power play this year? Could it be that the power play units on the Buffalo hockey team have no direction, no successful plan to actually put the puck in the net with more frequency than once in ten games? Ruff has tried everything from benching players to moving them out of their familiar surroundings on the power play. Now he has Miroslav Satan on the point and Afinogenov on the bench during most man advantages. Ruff changes line combinations so much that no one knows if he's coming or going. He hasn't had one line stick together for more than 2 games at a time this year.

Ruff is not getting much help from the front office. He was promised "the tools" from John Rigas this summer. So far "the tools" are still on back order. With the lack of support from Rigas and Darcy Regier in acquiring the scoring touch this team desperately needs, the players may have lost confidence in the management and the team in general. They have been just going through the motions and seem to have lost respect for Ruff. Once of the reasons for that is Ruff's constant chastising of players during his press conferences. That kind of back-stabbing would not sit well in any organization, let alone an NHL hockey team. Recently, Ruff benched Michael Grosek for a couple games. When Curtis Brown came down with the flu, Ruff was forced to dress Grosek. In the game against the Oilers, Grosek was made an example when Ruff refused to let him get any ice time. Grosek was degraded to a doorman, as his main job was to open and close the door to the players' bench. By constantly playing head games and criticizing players in public, it is no wonder that the players seem to be questioning Ruff's tactics and do not take him as seriously as in the past.

With only 23 games remaining in the regular season, the Sabres must go on a tear just to make the playoffs. They are sitting in 9th place, three points away from the final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. With the team averaging under 2 goals a game for the past few weeks, their chances of securing that final seed are diminishing by the game. What is needed is a wakeup call. The players need to be shaken out of their offensive slumber. Whether this is accomplished by a major trade or by a complete 180 degree turnaround of the players' attitudes, it must be done. To fail to even make the playoffs after being the No. 2 team in the playoffs last June is unacceptable. The time is now for the team to come together as a unit (and that includes strong support by the front office via trades) and prove that it still has that "hardest working" chemistry that brought it success in the past few seasons.


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