By Bill Hoppe
“I know the expectations are sky high. We’ve brought in the best possible players we can to make ourselves a better team. Now it’s growing as a team and going through what is going to be an extremely hard season, but having the expectations that we should be able to contend for the Cup.”
— Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, Sept. 16, 2011
Back when the Sabres began training camp and their much-anticipated 2011-12 season, optimism ran rampant, possibly at an all-time high.
The Sabres had enjoyed a wild second-half run last season, becoming an elite club. Then owner Terry Pegula spent freely during his first offseason.
Why not talk about challenging for the Stanley Cup?
Nearly four months later, the Sabres are a mess. Few would argue they’re the NHL’s biggest disappointment exactly halfway through the season.
Forty-one points (18-18-5) has them mired in 11th place, five behind the Maple Leafs for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot entering tonight’s tilt against their rival at the Air Canada Centre.
A third straight postseason appearance seems iffy.
Ruff was correct about one thing, though. It’s been an extremely hard season.
The Sabres can’t win at home, where frustrated fans boo them when they’re not sitting in stunned silence, or on the road, where they’ve dropped six straight following a fast start. Eight of the next nine are away.
Their 105 goals (2.6 a game) has them on pace for only 210. They’ve never scored fewer than 231 times post-lockout. They have just 34 tallies in 17 road games.
With the exception of Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, nearly every player’s struggling, most notably franchise goalie Ryan Miller, whose awful 3.05 goals-against average is nearly half a goal more than his career average.
Just a normal season from Miller might mean five or six more wins.
“We had high expectations at the start of the year. We knew that,” said Sabres center Derek Roy, who has only eight goals and 24 points. “Going forward now there’s low expectations. So now it’s easier to play. We just play loose, play fun. Go out there and play hard.
“I think scoring goals has been a key factor this season. The goal scorers got to go out and execute.”
Here’s a further breakdown of the first half and a look ahead to the second:
Where would they be without Pominville and Vanek?
The dynamic wing duo could be All-Stars later this month in Ottawa. Pominville, a notoriously slow starter, has 14 goals and 43 points. Vanek has 19 goals and 40 points.
That’s 31 percent of the scoring.
“We’ve relied on them heavy, and they’ve been great for our team,” Sabres winger Nathan Gerbe said.
Only one other player — rookie Luke Adam, with 10 goals — is on a 20-score pace. The slumping forward hasn’t tallied in nine games, however.
Some players aren’t just experiencing off seasons, they’re downright bad.
A short list:
• It was reasonable to think winger Drew Stafford, who scored 31 times in 62 games last season, could hit 30 again and possibly flirt with 40. But Stafford has only seven goals in 40 games. He’s not even close to a 20-goal man.
• In his first full NHL season, Cody McCormick contributed eight goals and 20 points while being the team’s designated fighter. That earned the winger a three-year, $3.6 million contract.
This season, McCormick has zero goals, two points, a minus-7 rating and just sat twice as a healthy scratch.
The big free agents — defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino — have underperformed, too.
No changes coming?
Sabres president Ted Black has said Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier are safe. In a published report last week, Regier said no major changes would be coming.
Apparently, a turnaround, which happened last season, will have to come from within.
The Sabres had the exact same record and point total one year ago today, trailing Montreal by eight for the final playoff spot. They finished in seventh with 96 points (43-29-10).
But the Sabres had already started their charge then, having won four of five. Right now, they’ve lost two straight and eight of 10.
Another bad week and they could almost fall out of the race completely.
Despite the tight-lipped Regier’s words, CBC’s Elliotte Friedman, a respected hockey voice, said Saturday the GM’s shopping Roy, giving recent rumors credibility.
“If you get concerned with the rumors, then you’ll be pulling hair out every day because I’ve heard thousands of things,” Roy said.
They haven’t recovered from Milan Lucic’s hit on Miller
The Sabres immediately imploded following their feckless response to Lucic’s wicked open-ice thump in Boston.
On Nov. 11, the Sabres had won four straight and sported a 10-5 record, fifth in the conference. They’re 8-13-5 since and haven’t won two games in a row.
The Sabres had hoped to grow from the experience.
“It’s coincidence,” Sabres center Paul Gaustad, who was on the ice for the hit that concussed Miller, said about the record. “It has nothing to do with that.”
That game also ignited a stunning rash of injuries. Seventeen players have missed action in two months. Overall, the Sabres have 183 man games lost to injury this season.
“From a coach’s standpoint, you wonder what’s going on,” Ruff said. “From a player’s standpoint, it’s constant change. But you got to deal with it. I don’t think we’ve ever dealt with anything like this.”
Notes: Roy, who re-injured the shoulder Friday he hurt in training camp, practiced in a non-contact role. So did defenseman Andrej Sekera (upper body). Roy said he’s day-to-day. Ruff said both could return this weekend. … Miller will start tonight. Ruff said rookie backup Jhonas Enroth will play during an upcoming stretch of six games in nine nights.