Friday, March 21, 2008

Why I Still Love This Young, Immature, Inconsistent Team of Little Brats

Here's the deal with this post. I wrote it over a course of a few nights while on vacation last week, mostly after the losses to the Rangers and the Penguins. I think it's clear in some spots that I'm assuming the Sabres are missing the playoffs. But those little rats went on to win the next three games and mostly look good doing it and now I'm back to thinking they probably will squeak in after all. And like I said a few posts ago, once the playoffs have started, it's a whole new season. But I figure a lot of the people complaining now will keep complaining. They'll just shift gears from "I can't believe the Sabres missed the playoffs!" to "I can't believe the Sabres barely squeaked into the playoffs!" and in that case, my defense pretty much stays the same as do my feelings about the team now and in the next couple of years. I also talk some about being a fan and what it means to me which I just talked about a little bit a few days ago. So in addition to being long-winded, disorganized, and scattered, this entry is also a little repititive. How's that for a build-up? Here goes:

A few days before I left for vacation, reader and commenter Jennifer emailed me and asked my opinion on something that she heard on XM radio. Since I know this is going to be long I'll skip all the set-up and boil it down to this: If you're in charge of the Sabres and the Flyers call and tell you Daniel Briere is available, do you take him? Forget who would have to be traded or released to make room for him and forget the money. If you could keep your current roster and fit him in your budget, would you take Briere?

My initial reaction was, "Yes, of course!" Before the season I really thought the team would miss Chris Drury more but as the season went along I decided it was Briere we really needed. Our penalty kill was pretty good and Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville were doing a nice job of becoming the main checking line. While we probably do miss some of Drury's leadership (more on that in a bit) and his face-off ability, I think that the current team has done a pretty decent job of filling in a lot of the things he did. For most of the season we were missing that guy who could decide, "You know what? We're winning this freakin' game," and then carry the puck down the ice and put it in the net. We missed the guy who played with visible passion most nights. The Sabres were scoring goals but they were having a hard time scoring them when it really mattered and Briere was good at that.

But as quickly as I thought, "Yes, of course I'd take him!" I decided, "No, I don't think I would." A Danny Briere like player? Yeah, maybe. Danny Briere himself? No. I just think it's really hard to turn back the clock. Just because Danny worked well with this team in the past, it doesn't mean he'd work there now. When he was in Buffalo, the Sabres were partly his team. This year they're not his team. To try to recreate that would be a tough thing.

And I'm not sure that's all that bad. Despite what the naysayers will tell you, there's still a very talented core in Buffalo. At some point I think the team had to be handed over to them. What's the point of drafting great young talent, much of it with good leadership potential, if you're never going to let the team belong to them? The change probably happened too soon and I think it definitely happened too abruptly - though I do think management intended for Teppo Numminen to help out with that by providing a leadership bridge from that team to this team - but I don't think it's a bad thing and while it's frustrating to watch it take a whole season, I don't think the season can be considered a waste in that regard.

To me, if you look at the season on a whole, Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, and Jason Pominville have made huge strides both on and off the ice. It was a struggle for most of them but why shouldn't it be? They were all cast in new roles and three of them are still pretty young. Miller was suddenly backstopping a team that couldn't overwhelm everyone with talent and became a more vital part of the game. Because the team struggled, he also found himself playing more games because more games were important than in the previous two seasons. Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy went from third liners to first liners, the top defended players, and Vanek was now The Man, the player expected to carry the team. And Jason Pominville became more important as a two-way player. Three of them were up and down for much of the season and even still are a little bit (God bless Pommers, steady and dependable to the end) but there were and are signs that they're putting things together and getting more comfortable. And even when struggling on the ice, I think all four have shown new maturity off the ice. Vanek never shied away from the criticism he received, agreeing that it was more than justified. He just continued to plug away until things starting working. Roy cut down on the diving, really cut down on the whining and responded extremely well when Lindy challenged him to be better because it was what his team needed from him. Pommers busted ass every night even when his teammates were slacking off around him and found other ways to contribute when he wasn't scoring.

Now don't get me wrong. The team still clearly has problems with consistency and the roster definitely needs some tweaking. A physical, stay-at-home defenseman would be nice. A steady, hard-working veteran would be even nicer. But not someone who's going to take over the team. Someone who's going to help the current team take the next big step. Young players have to grow up and while they may not be enough to build a championship team around right this second, I think they will be eventually and I don't think we're even that far away. I think they're moving in the right direction. Putting Danny (or Chris) back in the mix would, in my opinion, be a step backward. Players who are the future of the team, players who played under those two in the past, would naturally give that leadership back over to them and that's not a good thing. Something that I think a lot of people are overlooking is that cores change because they have to. That's the way sports work. Again, I'll definitely accept argument that it happened before the young'uns were really ready but with the long-term contracts that players are getting, I think it almost had to happen that way. If you ask me if I'd rather have a Jay McKee/Chris Drury/Danny Briere led team for the next six to seven years or a Vanek/Roy/Pominville team for the next six to seven years, I'm going with the latter. I might be in the minority but I think there's more room to grow and get better with that group than with the first group.

I'm also going to be a blasphemer and say that I think Chris Drury's leadership has been greatly exaggerated. I loved him and I'm in no way questioning that he did a lot for the Sabres and taught the players who are still here a lot. He absolutely did. But the truth is that last year's team - his team - played uninspired hockey for long stretches of the season, particularly in the second half. They repeatedly coasted through two periods and then turned it on in the third. The only difference between that team and this one is that that team had enough talent to pull that off and this one doesn't. Last year's team - again, Drury's team - sleepwalked through the first two rounds of the playoffs and then got embarrassed in the third round, playing one of the worst games I've ever seen a Sabres team play. Except for occasional flashes, they looked disinterested, unorganized, and almost completely lacking in passion. The only person who saved them from an embarrassing early round exit was Ryan Miller.

Please don't think I'm saying that Chris Drury was the problem or any part of the problem. I think there were a lot of things going on. A very talented team was maybe getting a little too comfortable with winning without full effort. The New NHL was moving back a little to the Old NHL which works against a small, skilled team. Other coaches were learning how to defend the Sabres. But whatever was going on, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere weren't the magic solution. I don't really see why people think they'd be the magic solution now.

I just... I guess I just don't understand why people think this team is doomed forever now. They've had a bad year but it happens. The Hurricanes went from winning the Stanley Cup to missing the playoffs because their most important players had tough seasons and two young guys (Eric Staal and Cam Ward) had a hard time adjusting to being two of the most important guys on the team. This season they got themselves back on track and the team is faring better, right back in the playoff mix and playing really good hockey here when it matters the most. The price of parity is that one or two players underachieving can kill a team's season. Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were two players on last year's President Trophy winning team. They were two important players but they were still TWO players. I really hate the way people are crediting all the team's success last year to two players. They helped make the team better maybe but they didn't give the current roster all its talent. Based on what we've seen from Drury and Briere this season I think it's pretty fair to say it was more of a two-way street. They all made each other better. Jochen Hecht and Pominville helped Briere as much as Briere helped them etc. I don't see why the talent that left outweighs the talent that's still here and I don't see why, with some growing and tweaking, the current roster can't be successful. The team before the lockout was not a great team and here we are two years later with two Eastern Conference Finals appearances. So why can't we turn it around again and do it just as quickly?

Let's face it, the current Sabres have had it pretty easy. The bulk of them played together on a very good Rochester team and then they came to the NHL and played on very good Sabres teams. Everything has broken their way in their pro careers. People talk about them having a lot of experience for young players but very few of them have much experience with losing a lot of games. They learned to win a lot which is good but they also learned to win without putting in a full sixty minutes as we've seen PLENTY of proof of this season. While it totally bites as a fan to watch them dither away an entire season, I'm not sure it'll be a terrible thing for them to wake up the day after the regular season ends and have to face the reality of not being in the postseason, not to mention facing the reality that they're sitting at home because that's exactly where they deserve to be. Their play this season doesn't merit anything else and despite what the media or some fans will say, that's ultimately on them. Not on management and not on coaching. It's on the guys who take the ice every night. Having plenty of time to think about all the one period games they played might be exactly what they need because you know what? No matter how much they've talked about the need to play harder I really think a lot of them fully expected to play exactly the way they have the last couple of years and get exactly the same results. And even when they struggled early, I think a lot of them figured it would be fine in the end. Finding out that it might not be as fine as they thought will suck for them (and us) but hey, sometimes you learn the lesson the most clearly when you screwed everything up.

When the Sabres were winning the division and leading the Conference people complained about all the bandwagoners who were suddenly buying jerseys and going to games. And now all those same people are freaking out and telling me that I need to stop drinking the Sabres Kool-Aid and stop supporting the team with my money. That seems... a little hypocritical, you know? If you're unhappy with ownership and you're pissed about the team and you feel like the only thing you can do is stop going to games and buying merchandise, hey, knock yourself out. But please stop assuming I feel the same and please stop telling me I should feel the same way. I don't have to. I don't want to.

I've been having a lot of discussions lately with a few friends about how being a sports fan consists of really high highs and really low lows. Jason Pominville's shortie against the Senators in the 2006 playoffs was a really high high but the reason it was such a high high was because of the low lows that came before it. Missing the playoffs completely the season before the lockout. Believing it was just a matter of time before the Sabres moved. Going without the NHL for a year. Struggling against the Senators all season. That goal wouldn't have meant nearly as much as it did if it wasn't for all the struggles that led up to it. Losing to the Hurricanes - watching a fun, talented team hang on as long as they could, battling to the very end despite the blueline blowing up around them - was a low low. And part of the reason it was so low is because of all the highs that came before it. Watching a fast, skilled team surprise the NHL. Seeing young players start to blossom and make real contributions to the team. Feeling the buzz in the air around Buffalo all season. Beating the Senators in five games on Jason Pominville's shortie. Living through all of that made thinking about Jay McKee crying in a hospital room while the Sabres lost feel that much lower.

But that's sports. You have the good and the bad and you need both. If you skip out on one, the other doesn't mean as much. When we're laughing at what a bargain Vanek is at seven million - a day that's going to come pretty soon, I think considering that Dan Boyle just re-signed for 6.67 - it'll be even funnier because everyone complained this season that he was never going to be worth that much. When Andrej Sekera is a steady, contributing member of the defensive corps we're going to laugh at how he initially showed up because the blueline blew up for the second time in three years. When Ryan Miller is saving the Sabres' bacon in the playoffs again we'll shake our heads when thinking about how he looked so exhausted and beat down this season and how Buffalo was all up in arms about how it was just a matter of time before he became a Red Wing. And don't tell me that those things aren't going to happen because they might not. But something like them will and that's the point really. Building a relationship with a team and a player means being there for the good and the bad and this year was just a whole lot of the bad. And yeah, I get that people who have been in Buffalo longer than I have been have had their fill of bad but again, it's part of the deal and you're a bunch of spoiled brats because while you haven't had a championship team yet, you have had plenty of high highs, a lot more than some cities have had. Championships are hard to win - even harder to win in the NHL and even harder to win in an NHL so full of parity. If you're watching sports just to win championships, you, my friend, are probably going to spend a lot of time being miserable.

So what's my point? I was a Sabres fan last year when the team was mostly good. I've been a Sabres fan this year when the team was mostly bad. I'll be a Sabres fan next year when they're hopefully mostly good again.

And I would definitely not take back Daniel Briere. He's got Flyers cooties.


Bowl of Pork said...

LizzieB and I were talking about this on the way from the game last night and decided we would never take Briere back. Not because of the leadership issue (which I agree with) but 100% because he was a whiny bitch. While we were winning, I was happy to overlook it, but the guy never stops. There's always something wrong, something not his fault, some piece of destiny at odds with his wants and desires. I say good riddance!

And I'm right there with you next year. All things considered, this wasn't such a bad season. It wasn't great, but there were some nifty highlights and that's the best I think I can ask. Now if only I can figure out how to get this Doug Bodger tattoo removed...

ElmaGolf said...

BRAVO!! Well worth the time & effort you put in.

The part that hit me the most was:

"If you ask me if I'd rather have a Jay McKee/Chris Drury/Danny Briere led team for the next six to seven years or a Vanek/Roy/Pominville team for the next six to seven years, I'm going with the latter."

I had an almost identical thought yesterday, as I wrote about the hug between Pommer & Miller at the end of the game Wednesday.

"From my observation, the Sabres are investing in a core they hope will "improve their play" rather than a group of players they hope will "maintain their play." Is that the proper philosophy? That's a matter of opinion - but I think the embrace between Pommer & Miller shows they like the faith being put in them."

I think Darcy is in our camp, and I thank God for his ability to keep an eye on the near-term and long-term at the same time.

Keep up the Great Work!

Jennifer said...

AMEN! I will stick by the Sabres, whether they are winning or not. I think that's what a TRUE fan does.

And I love watching these young guys mature and improve. It takes time, work and commitment to become great at anything and I want to be there for the Sabres when they reach that goal. I want to be able to say that I stood by them and watched them grow from "hockey babies" to "hockey greats". And I think the current roster has some GREAT possibilities.

Vanek's Hair said...

Very well put. Worth the read. I wouldn't want Briere back. Even though last season, a Vs. telecast (accidentally stumbling into good analysis) pointed out that a large majority of Briere's goals came when the Sabres were tied, or down by a goal. Perhaps challenging which one was actually "Captain Clutch." I am disappointed in myself for not remembering the game or the exact percentage. Mainly because I am incredible dork who generally retains such useless information.

I agree whole heartedly with the Chris Drury is overated statement. I appreciated what he did and was instrumental in the team's success. However, he was often credited with being a "Stanley Cup winner" True, he is, but look at the team he was on (Bourque, Sakic, Blake, Roy). Was Drury pulling the ship, or a passenger? He was also very average in Calgary. I guess we will have to wait and see this year with the Rangers.

In any event, that is a long way of saying I want neither Drury nor Briere back. Some Sabre fans (media) need to realize they are gone. Deal with it. They sound like someone who cannot stop talking about their ex.

Anne M said...

Another great post, Heather. This is something my brother and I have talked about many times this season, and we're both right with you.

I can't tell you how many times people have told me the Sabres "deserve" to lose because they didn't resign Briere/Drury. It's almost always someone who knows who Miller, Briere, and Drury are, but probably wouldn't recognize Jochen Hecht if he came into their living room wearing his own jersey. I point out that their record in the second half of last season wasn't all that, and their play in the playoffs got them exactly what they deserved, and that it all happened under Druierey's watch. They rarely have a response other than to sputter about how management sucks. Well, I would love to have kept one of them and management bears blame for what happened, but it didn't turn out that way, and the players aren't exactly innocent rubes in this tale.

I probably wouldn't take Drury or Briere back, but I would be really tempted by McKee. I know he's injury-prone now, but I still want him back.

Mark B said...

Excellent post. I've been a wreck many times this season, but I still do love most of these players. I know in my heart we will be good again, and if we sneak into the 7th or 8th spot this year and Ryan plays like he did in last year's playoffs, we might surprise some people.

Go Sabres!

stef said...

Heather, I've been reading your blog for awhile but today I felt I had to comment. I agree 100% with everything you say in this post. Great job and keep up the great work!


brian s. said...

@ bowl of pork - agree completely with the Briere is a whiny bitch comment. Is it really a surprise that when your "leader" acts like that that the younger players (i.e. Roy) do the same? Then when he's gone the younger player realizes the errors of the leader's way. Doug Bodger was awesome. Be proud of that tattoo.

@ Heather - I agree with your statement that the point of being a fan isn't just to celebrate a championship and that there have been some very high highs being a Buffalo sports fan (51-3 AFC championship game vs. the Raiders, being at Game 6 vs. Carolina in 2006 and being at Game 3 of the 1999 ECF). But it would be nice if for once a Buffalo sports team lost in a "normal" way instead of something that can be nicknamed and everyone in the country remembers it and laughs at you for even beginning to believe (Wide Right, No Goal, Homerun Throwback). Though it will be all the sweeter when the championship is finally won.