BUFFALO – The Sabres have lost a franchise-record nine consecutive games and 31 of 45 overall this trying season. They rank 29th in a 30-team league and dead last or close to the bottom in every major statistical category. They just lost 7-0 to a reeling Minnesota Wild team, their worst home defeat since 1977.
Of course, the Sabres, who host the Philadelphia Flyers tonight, were supposed to lose this season. But was the rebuilding club supposed to lose so badly this often? Opponents have outscored them 39-9 during their skid and 156-76 overall, shocking numbers in a low-scoring era of parity.
Very few observers expected the Sabres would be good. But many expected they would compete hard and showcase some grit most nights, hallmarks of coach Ted Nolan’s past teams.
Close friend Pat LaFontaine brought Nolan back for a second tenure 14 months ago. Sure, general manager Tim Murray awarded Nolan a three-year contract extension weeks after LaFontaine resigned as president of hockey operations in March, but Nolan isn’t truly Murray’s guy.
Even in a deep rebuild with low expectations, Nolan’s future could be shaky if the Sabres don’t start performing better soon.
“I’ve never feared my position in the NHL,” Nolan said Friday inside the First Niagara Center. “I never did in my life, because the only thing I know how to do is do what I do, and sometimes it’s good enough, sometimes it’s not. I’m not here to do anything but trying to get this team playing better and trying to get some of our younger players doing the right things in order for them to be better.
“We’re in the business of winning, though. You have to win, and you have to compete, and if you’re not winning and you’re not competing, there’s prices to pay.”
Nolan knows “if you lose enough, you know what you’re going to get.”
“But who’s going to worry about the rest of the bunch when that happens?” he said. “Usually when teams lose, there’s a lot of changes. You have a lot to play for. You have to play for your contract, you have to play for your livelihood, so you don’t want to be, ‘Well, we’re doing the right thing by losing.’ No, you’re not doing the right thing.”
Nolan gave the Sabres a grueling 35-minute practice with no breaks Friday, skating them up and down the ice. They practiced without a puck for much of the session, making “imaginary” plays to emphasize communication and visualization.
“Pain makes people think more,” Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons said. “If I was the coach, I would’ve done the same thing.”
The Sabres are simply too soft.
“It’s not punishment, it’s what we have to do,” Nolan said. “We have to get the pucks in deep. We have to get back, we have to change properly. Even our line changes are soft. The way we attack the puck is soft.”
There are only so many things Nolan and his staff can do, however. Gone are the days when an underperforming player could simply be banished to the minors.
“You can take the horse to the well,” Nolan said. “It’s up to him to bend over and drink it. You can’t force someone to do something.”
Clearly, the awful season has been wearing on the players, who are tired of discussing their problems. Sabres winger Tyler Ennis mentioned Thursday team meetings have featured “yelling and screaming.”
“It’s to a point where we’ve talked about it so much … there’s not much more we can say,” Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. “We got to start doing. Our execution is what it comes down to now.”
But the Sabres can’t execute the things they talk about.
“Enough talking, enough yelling and screaming at each other,” Nolan said. “People see what they see out there, but behind the scenes we got an angry team, we got a disappointed team. We just got to find a way to fight through it. There’s no one here that’s going to come on a big white horse and save the day for us.”
Sabres winger Drew Stafford believes “there’s been enough talk.”
“I’m sick of the meetings, sick of the keywords,” he said. “Like today, a simple 35 minutes of skating, hard work, working on the breakouts. We have a great opportunity (tonight) to put forth an effort we can be proud of, show something for our fans that come out and support us.
“After a game like (Thursday), I’m surprised that people are still showing up. We owe it to them to put forth an effort they can be proud of.”
The Sabres hadn’t lost so badly at home since Montreal shellacked them 9-2 on Jan. 6, 1977. Like the Wild, which had lost six straight games, the Flyers, having been blanked two straight games, are struggling. They have only 17 wins, three more than the Sabres.
With the NHL All-Star break next week and a five-game road trip starting Sunday, tonight is the Sabres’ last home game until Feb. 5.
“We want to end on a good note, but more importantly, just show something, some sort of life, some sort of response,” Stafford said.
Notes: Strachan Strays, defenseman Tyson Strachan’s pet adoption agency, will be selling their 2015 “Pucks & Paws” calendar at tonight’s game for $20. All proceeds benefit local pet charities. Sabres players posed with their dogs or rescue dogs. Each calendar has a signature. The calendar is also available at strachanstrays.com. … Defenseman Mike Weber had a maintenance day Friday and should play tonight, Nolan said. … Center Marcus Foligno (hand) has started skating on his own.