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Insider

Sabres in need of a wake-up call

1/17/2012

An NHL scout who has seen the Buffalo Sabres enough to realize something isn't right about this season's group was asked about their franchise goalie, Ryan Miller. Miller was yanked Monday night in the Detroit Red Wings' 5-0 win over the Sabres, Buffalo's ninth consecutive road loss.

"I don't see the fire. There's just not the same fire," the scout observed. "I don't see that in him like I did a couple years ago."

Embarrassed in front of friends and family in his home state, there was fire after the game from Miller. Plenty of it. Enough to ruin audio tape for Buffalo reporters looking to immediately put sound clips online or use on the radio.

Miller was asked the questions we're all wondering: What next? Do you blow things up in Buffalo? Do you fire the coach? Do you wipe the slate clean from top to bottom? Is there a major trade out there that can shake life into a team that desperately needs it?

"If you want to just destroy a team, go out and be reckless and do something, yeah, then there's going to be new guys in here," Miller said. "Other than that? This locker room is going to be pretty much the same, if not completely the same. We got to find it from in here. We can't sit and wait for someone else to [expletive] do it."

Time is running out for the Sabres to find the answers from within -- at least, it should be. Owner Terry Pegula was at the game in Detroit, which isn't necessarily notable. So too was Ken Sawyer, a senior adviser and alternate governor who doesn't regularly attend road games. If the frustration is peaking among the players, imagine the frustration of the guy who spent $8 million just to improve the dressing room. His huge investment in free agency hasn't panned out, with Christian Ehrhoff injured and Ville Leino stuck at three goals this season.

"[Pegula] wants to win and he did everything he could in the offseason," Leino said after the loss. "He's an owner who cares, that's a good thing. I'm sure there's some [frustration] because we haven't won on the road. ... We're not happy with our record."

There's a growing notion that the continuity in Buffalo has made things a bit stale. The same GM. The same coach. The same core group of players.

Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers finds the theory misguided.

"I think it's pretty ridiculous. Everyone in this room knows what we have to do, what our role is," he said. "It's just a matter of us putting our mind to it, that we're going to do it. As far as stale or whatever you want to call it, I don't think that's an issue at all."

Said Paul Gaustad: "I don't think stale is a good word for it. We're going through a tough stretch right now. That's what sports is all about. You're not going to always be good. There's ups and downs throughout a season. So right now, we're having to deal with some tough times. I always think the tough times make a team better."

And it still may happen in Buffalo. But the reality is that it's more likely going to take a shock to the system to get there. Nearly every other underachieving team in the league has done something significant to try to change direction. Seven coaches have been fired. Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray put his stars on notice when he said none of them was untouchable. Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster went out and added Mike Cammalleri.

The Sabres sound similar to the Los Angeles Kings' players when they were asked if they needed a spark during their downturn. They didn't want Terry Murray fired. They didn't think it was necessary.

Darryl Sutter was a shock to the system and, as it turns out, a necessary one.

"It was kind of a wake-up call for the team," admitted goalie Jonathan Quick after the fact.

The Sabres need that jolt.

This isn't a call for Lindy Ruff's head. You don't hold your job as long as he has without being a good coach. But these Sabres need a wake-up call. Any kind of wake-up call.

Maybe it comes in the form of a regime change. Former Sabres forward and current Toronto Maple Leafs executive Rick Dudley would be a natural fit in Buffalo if Pegula ever decides it's time for a new voice in the front office.

Maybe it's simply in the form of a passionate plea from Miller, who sounds like he has little patience left for his team's inability to play consistently in front of him.

"I guess we have to stop being nice," he said. "That's what it comes down to."

Pegula, who I was told was unavailable for any interviews on Monday evening, said something interesting in a preseason conversation with the Buffalo News' Bucky Gleason. He maintained his stance that his focus was on winning a Stanley Cup, and understood that his spending and public comments meant more pressure in Buffalo.

"It's obviously a good thing," he said. "I said before I bought the Sabres, to my wife and myself, that an owner in sports has one job, and that's to be liked. That's the only job I have. There's only one way to be liked, and that's to win."

It's not happening. The Sabres haven't won on the road since beating the Nashville Predators on Dec. 3. They haven't won two consecutive games since November.

It hasn't even been one full year since Pegula officially became the Sabres' fourth owner in franchise history. That anniversary is Feb. 22. But the tough decisions are coming fast, especially if Pegula wants to remain well-liked among a fan base that doesn't have nearly the patience he has shown.

"There is always concern when you don't have success. The organization might want to tweak the team around a little bit to help it out to give it a better chance to win," said captain Jason Pominville. "Those things are out of our control. We have to do our part on the ice and get back to winning and actually force them to keep this group intact and not make any changes, and show them we're capable of making a push."

Monday's performance wasn't the way to do it.