By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Kevyn Adams probably guessed there might be days like this. He just hoped they wouldn’t arrive so quickly.
The first-year general manager of the Buffalo Sabres could have looked at the NHL standings today and seen his worst fears realized. The Sabres are at the bottom of the overall standings with 15 points, and they have looked terrible and disinterested in doing it. If you want to be picky about it, they don’t have the worst winning percentage of the league. Buffalo is two points behind both Detroit and Ottawa but have five games in hand. That’s what passes for good news these days.
What’s more, the arrow continues to point downward in terms of the immediate future. Buffalo has lost its last five games (0-4-1), and is 2-8-1 in its last 11 games since coming back from a two-week break caused by Covid-19. The Sabres are 12 points out of a playoff spot. More to the point, their 6-12-3 record probably means they’d need to win at least nine more games than they lose from here on to be in the playoff race. Anyone think that’s going to happen? Anyone at all?
Adams apparently has kicked plenty of tires in search of personnel changes. However, this is the worst possible time to do that. There’s the usual story about other teams that are not anxious to do the Sabres any favors when they are at the bottom, and are calling only to see if they can pick up a player at a bargain price. Then throw in the pandemic, with its extra rules about quarantine rules and border crossings, and the job becomes tougher.
What do most general managers do when one of their teams has flatlined, as the Sabres have done in the past week? Simple – fire the coach. It’s relatively simple and offers some proof to the fans that the team feels their pain and wants to do better. And, let’s face it – you can make a case for telling Ralph Krueger that his coaching services are no longer needed.
I’m a believer that talent means more than systems when it comes to success in hockey, a sport that resembles a jazz quintet more than a symphony orchestra. Besides, there aren’t many secrets out there when it comes to coaching, and few coaches have a magic wand to transform players. That said, the Sabres would seem to have enough talent to score more goals than what they’ve done lately. Buffalo has scored four or more goals in one of its last 18 after doing it twice in the opening three games. The team has totaled 18 goals in its last 11 games – far from good enough. Something has gone wrong.
One of the reasons for that drought is the play of Jeff Skinner, who is still looking for his first goal. Skinner has been in the middle of a soap opera, it seems, ever since he signed a big contract in 2019. Krueger hasn’t been able to get him to play the way he wants him to play since they teamed up, and few teams can afford to have that sort of drain on the roster in a world of salary caps. Meanwhile, Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel have only done slightly better.
Then there have been a few moments that from a distance are downright puzzling. Rasmus Ristolainen has been thrown back in the lineup from a serious case of Covid-19, and clearly needed time to get back in shape. He played a little less than 20 minutes on Thursday and was a minus-3. Meanwhile, Rasmus Dahlin – whose progress toward stardom appears to have slowed a bit in the past year-plus – was a minus-4 in that same game. Dahlin is a minus-21 for the season, the worst in the NHL. Admittedly, good players on bad teams suffer in plus-minus because they have to be on the ice so much against top players. Still, you’d like to see him do better than a minus-1, on average, every single night.
Last weekend, Eichel and Krueger couldn’t get together and get the story of Eichel’s injury straight. Before that, Krueger said that he wasn’t award that Skinner’s agent had called Adams to ask about his client’s situation. Every business from Apple to the corner pizzeria has communication problems; the good ones solve them.
Is there a flip-side to that argument about changing coaches? Absolutely. The Sabres were 4-4-2 on January 31 when the Covid-19 break arrived. That’s not on a pace to make the playoffs (total wins has to equal total losses, including ones in overtime, to put a team in the running), but it’s not bad. After that layoff, the Sabres were thrown into a preposterously busy schedule that would have taken a toll on any team. It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the Islanders and Flyers have popped up as frequent opponents in this stretch, as they are two teams who are particularly suited to taking advantage of the Sabres’ weaknesses.
Krueger couldn’t do much about injuries, either. Linus Ullmark was showing more signs of becoming a reliable No. 1 goalie in the league – maybe not an elite player, but solid. He’ll miss a month with a lower-body injury. He joined defensemen Jake McCabe and William Borgen on the injured list. McCabe might have been playing his best hockey as a Sabre, while rookie Borgen had started to show that he could play at hockey’s highest level. Buffalo has given up at least three goals in its last five games (and scored three goals in only one of those games) – all of them losses.
By the way, if a new coach does come in, he might have to sit out for a while before starting work because of pandemic regulations. If that person misses two weeks because the quarantine, the new coach wouldn’t be able to do anything right away. At best, that’s not the best resolution to a problem, but it is reality at the moment.
Sharing the blame
Some of all of this falls on Adams and the organization. There were those who wondered if the defense was deep enough for the team to thrive, but the team didn’t do much to change the roster there. As of today, Carter Hutton’s save percentage is .891. Ullmark is at .919. That means Hutton will give up a little more than a goal per game more than Ullmark if they both face 30 shots, which is quite a difference.
Meanwhile, we don’t know how much of an effect injuries are having on the team. In particular, Eichel has looked far less effective so far this season, and it’s easy to guess he is nursing some injuries. Every player is likely to suffer bumps and bruises under the compacted schedule, but the Sabres clearly miss the guy who powered their offense last season.
That’s enough to give Adams plenty to consider in the coming hours, but there’s another huge factor in the equation. He has a couple of bosses. Terry and Kim Pegula own the team. If Krueger is shown the door, he would be owed a reported $4 million for next season, the last on his contract, plus whatever is left on this season’s payout. Remember, the Sabres already took steps during the pandemic to cut costs, and ownership won few friends within the organization by stating last April that maintaining their personal lifestyle was a priority to them. Paying out $5 million for someone not to work might not be well received in this economic climate. Ownership has to be on board with any such move.
One other factor is floating around in this situation, at least from the public’s viewpoint. We who are on the outside looking in probably know less about what’s going on within the organization than at any point in the team’s history. The pandemic gets credit for that too. There is much less contact between media members and the players and front office members than there usually is. Conversations are restricted to Zoom meetings that are broadcast on social media. Admittedly, media access has become more and more restricted in recent years, but it’s become easier to keep things quiet in these past 12 months. In other words, if Players A and B hate the coaches, it might stay hidden. There are some ways around that, of course, but guesses about the team’s fate have become less educated in that span.
My slightly educated guess is that Adams probably will have to do something with the coaches, probably sooner rather than later. After to listening to him address the media on Friday afternoon, the situation might have to improve by the time this road trip ends. He’ll also have to take a long look in the weeks ahead at this team, which would mean at least everything from considering the idea of trading Eichel over the summer to changing the type of water bottles on the bench. The Sabres remain broken after many years of futility.
It’s a lot to put on one person’s plate, but Adams knew that the general manager’s job came with such responsibilities. Now comes the tough part – making sure that “days like this” don’t turn into “months like this.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)