Sabres debacle is ’embarrassing’ but it could get worse

What is going on in Buffalo? Chris Johnston spoke to Hockey Central to discuss the drama surrounding the Sabres and if this will be Jack Eichel's last season with the team.

The eloquent Ralph Krueger called Buffalo from Madison Square Garden — Jack Eichel’s future stomping grounds? — and tried his darndest to control the damage.

Listening to the head coach’s weekly 15-minute appearance on WGR 550 radio Tuesday morning was akin to watching a man keep a brave face while trying to extinguish a tire fire with a handful of damp napkins.

Addressing a loyal and abused Sabres fanbase that has been let down more often than Rapunzel’s hair, the head coach said the entire organization was focused on solutions to its 6-10-3 problem, starting with this morning’s tactical meeting ahead of a game versus the New York Rangers.

The message right through from ownership to the bench is open and excellent, Krueger maintained.

“Every time I’m communicating with the Pegulas, I come off with energy, I come off with encouragement and support,” Krueger said.

Excuse our raised eyebrow.

Krueger denied any disconnect between he and $9-million triple-healthy-scratch Jeff Skinner, even though the latter came out and said he wasn’t learning much from the press box. These sorts of disruptions between player and coach, Krueger explained, are sometimes necessary, even if they cannot be fully understood from the outside. Oh, and Skinner has not been stuffed on the fourth line because the Sabres don’t number their lines.

“We look each other in the eye every day,” Krueger said.

The messaging from coach and captain to the public didn’t quite line up last week either, with Krueger saying Eichel’s lower-body injury occurred during warm-ups Thursday. But Eichel said he’s recovering from getting banged up in-game last Tuesday.

The toxic cocktail of multiple injuries (Eichel dealt with an upper-body ailment in a shotgun training camp), the club’s COVID-19 setback, an unsettled top six, and general losing fatigue, has left Eichel a whisper of the player who finished eighth in Hart voting in 2020.

The $80-million face of the franchise has registered all of two goals. He has five even-strength points. His career-low 3.8 shooting percentage is shocking.

“He looks to me like an unhappy camper,” an anonymous scout told beat reporter Bill Hoppe. “I have noticed it more this year. It’s my guess he knows it’s not working here. Yeah, he’s been nicked up a bit with some injuries, but nothing that should be keeping him at two goals.”

At this point, it’s difficult to discern if Eichel’s body language is mimicking that of the fans or vice versa.

“Anybody that’s happy right now as part of the Sabres organization, you’re in the wrong job,” Krueger said. “What Jack is showing or feeling is in line with what we’re all feeling as a group.”

Then Krueger spun positive: “Anger is a good thing if you invest that energy into the right steps, and that’s what we need to do tonight.”

It’s hardly the first time and won’t be the final time, but the vultures are circling the greatest talent in upstate New York, even though he’s signed through 2026.

“I think at the end of the day Jack Eichel is going to end up a New York Ranger,” an anonymous NHL exec told The Athletic. “I just don’t know when it’s going to be.”

The Los Angeles Kings have also been rumoured.

But there is zero evidence that Eichel has asked out. And even though Eichel’s no-move clause doesn’t kick in until 2022, such a course-alternating move would have to be player-driven. Wouldn’t it?

Hypothetically, a blockbuster of such magnitude would be tricky enough for an experienced dealmaker to pull off under a rising cap and in a vaccinated world.

In the near term, Buffalo should salvage what futures it can from trade bait like Brandon Montour and Staal.

God bless rookie GM Kevyn Adams, but his first big shot at correcting course — spending $8 million to rent Taylor Hall (with full trade protection!) for one year — has bricked.

Hall hasn’t scored in 18 games. Eric Staal is zero for his last 10. Skinner and Kyle Okposo (a $6 million hit) have zero goals combined. Sniper Victor Olofsson is getting his cookies on the Sabres’ third-ranked power-play (31.15 per cent) but has just one strike at even-strength.

“Our power play’s been outstanding this season. Usually, it’s the engine of your offence — but it hasn’t ignited our 5-on-5 game,” said Krueger, shutout back-to-back by Philadelphia in his own building over the weekend. “We need to get some gritty goals.”

Grit has been scarce.

Buffalo takes the NHL’s fewest penalties (5.1 PIM per game) and draws the second-fewest (6.9). There’s not enough engagement and greasy-area drive for a roster that depends on 5-on-4 situations.

“I’m very embarrassed. This is not acceptable. This sucks. It’s the worst,” Rasmus Dahlin said Sunday. “We will keep losing if no one is competing. We need to do all the gritty stuff. Hit someone. A fight. I don’t know. But the team we have right now should not be losing like we are right now.”

The Sabres’ goaltending has been fine (a league-median save percentage), but their defence corps has been overtaxed and it’s impossible to gain ground in a 3-2 league when you’re averaging much closer to the two.

To be fair to Krueger and his crew, the roster — and the coach himself — were hit hard by their COVID-19 outbreak at the end of January. Terrifying stuff, particularly for a 61-year-old.

“Clearly we lost our way coming out of the COVID break,” said Krueger, loathe to use excuses. “We certainly are not pleased with our execution on both sides of the puck.”

The Sabres’ on-ice luck hasn’t been much kinder.

In addition to getting realigned into the East, the NHL’s temporary Division of Death, Buffalo is shooting at an unsustainably low 7.4 per cent (only Nashville is worse). Now, the team’s supposed goalie of the future, Linus Ullmark, will be sidelined for a month, minimum.

Buffalo’s playoff drought is destined to extend to an NHL-worst 10 years, and the city deserves better.

This is no longer about climbing into the race. It’s about climbing into respectability.

It’s about not permitting a culture of losing to seep into great building blocks like Dahlin and Dylan Cozens.

It’s about finding a proper, effective management and coaching structure. It’s about cultivating roles and sticking to a plan. (One of our sources suggested Krueger shift to a president’s role in the off-season as a buffer between ownership and management, and bring in an established NHL bench boss.)

It’s about putting an end to the salt-in-wound stories, like Ryan O’Reilly rediscovering his love for the game and hoisting a Stanley Cup in St. Louis. Or Conor Sheary rebounding nicely in Washington. Or a mismanaged Zach Bogosian becoming an effective defender for champion Tampa Bay and contender Toronto.

How does Bogosian look back at Buffalo, a year after his buyout?

“That’s so far in the past for me. Things didn’t really work out there,” Bogosian said Monday. “I met some lifelong friends, but obviously the way things ended, I was glad to go to Tampa for a new experience. And to win the Cup was kind of icing on the cake.”

Sabres fans’ greatest fear will be one-day reading similar quotes from Jack Eichel.

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