Are the Sabres a playoff team?
I usually don't even think to consider NHL playoff seedings until sometime in late February, I guess, because that's when it really starts to matter. Monitoring postseason positioning before then seems as fruitless as a birch tree.
But after hearing the Buffalo Sabres stood at ninth this week, following another disappointing loss to the Boston Bruins in overtime, I can already feel the dread of a third playoff-less season in four years. Watching the Bruins, Habs, Sens, and Leafs play in the springtime while the Sabres don't is somewhere between a migraine headache and a bleeding ulcer. I have aspirin and antacids prepared for battle.
Yes, it's early, and the Eastern Conference's mediocre and slightly above mediocre teams will be swapping spots aplenty through the frigid winter doldrums ahead.
But there's a fair questions to be asked: is this the kind of team that can begin establishing consistency and win some really important road games? Games that lift you from also-ran to playoff team? Tuesday's loss to Bruins is Exhibit A: teams that regularly make the postseason protect the lead and steal a point from a very good (yet very beatable) B's team. Teams finishing ninth through whatever lose them. Just like Buffalo did.
Look up and down the lineup. This team has some wonderful players, but do the sum of their parts equal year-after-year playoff expectations? One shudders to think where they'd be without Ryan Miller minding the store. He can't do it alone. A lot has to go right in the next four months for Mr. USA Hockey himself to get to his team to The Dance. For starters, Tyler Myers has to regain his Calder Trophy-winning form of 2009, but he seems deeply entrenched in the cursed sophomore rut (sounds better than "slump," huh?). Myers will be fine eventually. I'm just not counting on it happening this season.
Myers isn't the only question mark here. At the core of the Sabres' problems is a dearth secondary scoring sources. That's supposed to come from Jason Pominville, Tim Connolly, Nathan Gerbe, Drew Stafford, (point your finger of blame at whomever), but it's not happening. Not with nearly enough frequency anyway. It's bad enough that the team's two best forwards, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek, are having trouble finding the scoresheet; if a second wave of offense is absent, winning those pivotal games becomes darn near impossible.
But that's not what bothers me; not what makes me feel like it's a grim revisiting of the days of 2007 and 2008. It's that I don't see this group "gritting" out a lot wins in big moments. A lot like the above-mentioned two-year playoff drought, I see them raising hopes one week and then deep-sixing them. Then raising them back up, but eventually running aground when it's time to add up the points in April.
Hate to say it, but ninth sounds about right for this season's stumbling Sabres.