BUFFALO, N.Y. — Don Granato stepped to the lectern in the Buffalo Sabres’ media room with his hands in the pockets of his sage green suit and delivered a familiar postgame message after his team’s 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
The Sabres, Granato said, wanted an easier game. They didn’t work hard enough and didn’t do enough to get to the front of the net. All of their issues, Granato said, stemmed from an unwillingness to work.
That Granato was describing another loss in those terms is why the Sabres are 22-25-4 and closer to the bottom five of the NHL standings than they are to a wild-card spot. The Sabres had three days between their 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on Tuesday and this Saturday afternoon contest against the Blues, which was a nationally televised affair. Both games were at home, the start of a four-game homestand coming off the All-Star break. Granato gave the team the day off practice Wednesday. And yet again the problem with the Sabres was an unwillingness to work?
“I don’t think you explain it,” Granato said. “Who wants to hear an explanation on that? Do you want to hear an explanation on that? You didn’t work, period. Didn’t work.”
No two losses are identical for the Sabres, but it’s tough to ignore the themes that keep popping up 51 games into the season. On Saturday, the Sabres allowed the first goal in the game. That’s the 31st time they’ve done that in 51 games this season, and they are 6-22-3 in those games. By comparison, the Blackhawks, who are the worst team in hockey, have allowed the first goal 26 times in 52 games and are 5-21 in those games.
Back in November, Granato was urging his players to “wake up” and “compete.” The message sounded similar after the loss to the Blues. The team’s unwillingness to go to the net is evident in its plummeting goal totals and the heat map of their shots this season. For a team that fancied itself a playoff contender when the season started, it’s alarming to see those types of issues doom them at this point on the calendar.
“I don’t think it’s one thing,” Sabres captain Kyle Okposo said. “We have to find another gear. It seems like we’re stuck in third gear. Yeah, we’re playing well. We’re playing better. But we have more. I know we have more. I know this group has more. I know we’re a better team than that. We’re just missing a little bit of jam.”
How surprised is Okposo that his team lacks “jam” and hasn’t found another gear in mid-February?
“I’m surprised,” he said. “I mean, it wouldn’t have been where I thought we would be going into the season. Hindsight is 20-20, but I can sit back and look at things that we did or we didn’t do and there’s a lot of things that go into where we are. That’s gonna have a ripple effect, for sure, on our team. We just have to try to find another gear here because time is running out.”
This version of the Sabres could use a ripple effect. The trade deadline is less than a month away. Scouts from 14 different NHL teams were in attendance on Saturday, including Leafs general manager Brad Treliving. Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams will be in an odd position. His team is 11 points out of a playoff spot, not an ideal situation to be buying at the deadline. But the team has plenty of picks and prospects to add to the roster and only a handful of unrestricted free agents to sell off. It’s time to supplement the young core with more proven talent and add players who can bring the traits this team consistently lacks.
But Adams won’t be able to fix everything at the trade deadline. The rest of the season needs to be an evaluation of what went wrong to get them to this point, and Adams will need to be decisive about making moves to correct the issues. Not everything about this team is broken. For one, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen had a strong game in net. He hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game since Dec. 23 and has a .937 save percentage in his last 10 games. The Sabres are only 5-5 in those games, though.
Buffalo is also getting a breakout season from JJ Peterka, who has 18 goals. Casey Mittelstadt has played the best hockey of his career and leads the team in points.
But the bad significantly outweighs the good. Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens and Alex Tuch have all taken a step back from their career-best offensive production a season ago. Thompson has two points in his last nine games. Owen Power hasn’t been nearly as consistent as he was as a rookie. The Sabres’ power play went 0-for-3 on Saturday and is now 30th in the NHL. Injuries haven’t helped, but missing Jack Quinn and Mattias Samuelsson doesn’t excuse what happened on Saturday or the entirety of Buffalo’s shortcomings this season.
Heading into the game against the Blues, Granato said his team was in a better frame of mind over the last month. But all of the talk about the improved “psyche” falls flat when the Sabres have a game like this one. The Sabres were down 2-1 entering the third period. If ever there was a time to dig deep and show some of the “jam,” as Okposo said, that would have been it. But the Sabres were outshot 11-7 and out-chanced 13-5 at five-on-five in the third period. Granato has said the Sabres have played well when they dial in this season, and that seemed like prime time to dial in.
Instead, the postgame was filled with familiar rhetoric, which makes it fair to wonder whether Granato’s message about getting to the net and the need to compete is sinking in with this group of players.
“It’s not sinking in consistent enough,” Granato said.
(Top photo: Bill Wippert / NHLI via Getty Images)