Originally posted on Buffalo Wins  |  Last updated 1/19/12

Are injuries a valid excuse?

By now you’ve all heard the suggestions by the Sabres brass that injuries are largely to blame for the team’s highly disappointing performance so far this season. Within days of each other both Team President Ted Black and Owner Terry Pegula referenced their hobbled ranks when asked about their poor play, Black at the Blogger Summit and Pegula during an interview on WGR with Schopp and the Bulldog. Both men made the comment that they needed to put “Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Putting aside the ridiculousness of using this nursery rhyme character to make their point – I think most of your remember how that certain story ended and it didn’t exactly work out for the little egg – can we have a rational discussion on whether a strong rash of injuries can be a legitimate reason for a team’s downfall? After the powers that be made these comments, the fans were outraged and the media joined in the attack. And I won’t lie to you and say it didn’t bother me either.

Now granted, the Sabres have lost significant would-be contributors for extended periods of time, including the likes of Tyler Myers, Ryan Miller, Tyler Ennis and Christian Ehrhoff to name a few. However, if you take a look at players that have been mostly healthy – Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, & Luke Adam are three that come to mind – you have individuals that aren’t meeting expectations or are dropping off in production. And two players that have played every game, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, are the bright spot for the team/season, but haven’t been given much support from anyone else.

But my true, initial reaction to the excuse was it just hearkened back to our good “friend” Larry Quinn and his approach a couple seasons back. The season was 2008 and after an up and down season, the Sabres started to make some noise in February. The team was playing better, winning some games, and Ryan Miller was on one of those stretches when he looked like an NHL goaltender. Then the infamous collision with Scott Gomez occurred, and the Sabres went in a tailspin after Miller injured his ankle as the team did not play well with Patrick Lalime in net. After the season, the much reviled Quinn remarked that the Sabres would have made the playoffs had Miller not been hurt and said they should be given a “mulligan”.

The Golisano/Quinn operation was so hated by the end of their run that remarks like this just added to the impression that there was no accountability all the way to the top of the organization for putting an inferior product on the ice. It was a cop out, a convenient answer to a more complex problem. Typical smooth talking by the ever arrogant Quinn. In the end, it would be one of those things we remembered him by, the success of the 2005 to 2007 forgotten by the failings in those later years.

So when Ted Black played the injury card last Wednesday, I felt kind of dirty inside. This was Quinn’s way of doing things, not the straight shooting, on the ball businessman who had done some many good things since Pegula bought the team and appointed him to his role. I was glad to hear Black respond to Joe’s question on whether injuries would be used as an excuse at the end of the year with a no, but his original words were still out there. It was disappointing, especially when Pegula echoed these thoughts as he questioned how they would evaluate the team and players with all the injuries.

But I think it’s important to look a little deeper beyond gut reactions and negative feelings due to associations I make with these explanations. What does history tell us? A great comparison point would the 2005-2006 season.

I’ve mentioned before, specifically in my post about the core last week, how I thought the year after the lockout was some of the most exciting hockey around. And the Sabres were a joy to watch. I think the main things a lot of people remember about the year was the fast-paced, up tempo skating of the team on the positive side or the bad luck of losing most of our defense corps at the end of playoffs in the loss to the Hurricanes. More on the D-men injuries for sure as we move along here, but I want to start off with something not as many people remember, some early season difficulties on the health front.

Daniel Briere, J.P. Dumont and Miller all missed significant time early in that season. Briere and Dumont were struck down with sports hernia injuries and only played 48 and 54 games respectively. Miller’s ailment was a broken finger and he gave way for Marty Biron for 18 games.

Miller was the first to go down early in the season and the team struggled for a while in the transition of relying on Biron, going 2-5 before rattling off a highly successful streak, including 13 consecutive wins for Marty. 13 straight wins in row for the chatty one! It still boggles my mind. Dumont would have surgery in early December with Briere to follow after the calendar turned to 2006, with both having already missed several games before going under the knife. But the team kept on rolling. So how did the Sabres survive this rash of injuries to such key players? One word – reinforcements.

These names might ring a bell - Roy, Pominville, Daniel Paille. The Sabres didn’t miss a beat at forward as each call up fit in nicely and overachieved. Yes, I just used the word overachieve in reference to Derek Roy. #9 played part of a season prior to the lockout and showed some flashes, but was beaten out for the final roster spot in the 05 training camp by none other than Tim Connolly. Upon returning to the team after the injuries, Derek played with a feisty skill game that we would beg for right now.

And Pominville was a revelation. Every year is seemed like he did well in preseason only to be one of the final cuts. Not being a big minor league follower during those years, I was surprised by this “new guy”. He had a nice, hard shot and found a way to get to the open ice and find opportunities around the net as well. None of his current intangibles that we mention when talking about him now stuck out to me, like leadership and penalty killing (although he eventually did the latter as the season progressed) – Jason was simply an offensive fireplug when we desperately needed it.

Paille was probably the least impressive of the three, which might explain why he was dumped by Darcy Regier while the other two are still here, but I did notice his strong effort game and forechecking, which has kept him in the league with a great Boston team. I specifically remember a 10-1 thrashing of the L.A. Kings on January 14th in which all three of these referenced players made a difference with their youthful energy. It made me a hopeful fan, knowing we had such a great mix of veterans and young guys on our team.

There’s a sad ending to this season’s story, though. I don’t have to re-hash the defensemen injuries that cost us the Eastern Conference Championship series vs. Carolina in detail. But losing four out of our six starting back liners (Kalinin, Tallinder, Numminen, and McKee) was more than the Sabres could overcome. The bottom line here is the Sabres of that magical season had impressive depth in the organization at forward and goalie but not at defense. Rory Fitzpatrick, Jeff Jillson and Nathan Paetsch weren’t going to cut it. The trade deadline had come and gone and Darcy Regier ignored the need for added veteran help at D.

What correlation can we make to the 2011-2012 squad? It pains me to type this, but it’s clear that there is no depth whatsoever at any position to overcome these injuries. The help from Rochester had some impressive flashes (Kassian, McNabb) but they weren’t quite ready to contribute at the level that Roy and Pominville did back in the day. Jhonas Enroth looks like a decent goalie for the most part, but he doesn’t have the experience and confidence that Biron had when stepping in at the most stressful position on the team.

Just as important as talent depth is character depth. The Sabres had it in excess with Drury. Grier, Mckee, Numminen, etc. The core that exists right now doesn’t have the maturity and “battle scars” to keep the team afloat during a difficult time. Yet another failing by Regier in his structuring of this current team.

So are injuries a valid excuse for the Sabres? No. But lack of talent, depth and experience are.


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