By John Wawrow
The Associated Press
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers described this season to be a failure. Captain Jason Pominville regarded it a wasted year. And goalie Ryan Miller called it embarrassing.
Those were among the most blunt and bitter assessments expressed by Sabres players as they cleaned out their lockers Monday. The comments provided a sober close to a frustrating season in which the Sabres, and a high-priced lineup, fell so far short of their preseason Stanley Cup-contending expectations that they failed to make the playoffs altogether.
“I feel like it’s a wasted year,” Pominville said. “You look at our team, and there’s no way we should be where we’re at right now.”
Miller went even further while acknowledging that his own midseason slump — which mirrored the team’s poor play — was a contributing factor.
“I’m sick to my stomach that I was part of something that put us in a position to miss the playoffs,” Miller said. “I don’t think we ever stepped up to that level we talked about and where we needed to be. So yeah, that’s embarrassing.”
Riding high in September, after new owner Terry Pegula completed a multimillion-dollar spending spree in a bid to build a bona fide contender, the Sabres now find themselves as being one the NHL’s biggest flops of the season.
A frantic late-season run, in which the Sabres went 20-8-6 over the final two months, fell four points short of making the playoffs. With 89 points, Buffalo (39-32-11) finished ninth in the Eastern Conference standings by registering its fewest points since 2003-04.
They were undone by a combination of injuries, inconsistency and ineptitude during a mid-November to late-January swoon in which they went 9-19-5 while also setting a franchise low by losing 12 straight road games.
“I consider this season a failure, especially knowing the potential we had and the way we played the last 30 games of the year,” said Myers, who revealed he missed the final four games with a broken ankle. “You look back on it, and you leave with some regrets. And that’s one of the toughest feelings to leave with.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around.
The Sabres’ braintrust is also being criticized, with questions directed at the status of coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier, who have been together since the start of the 1997-98 season.
Pegula and team president Ted Black have been steadfast in expressing their support for both throughout the season. And barring a marked change of heart, Ruff and Regier are expected to retain their jobs heading into next season.
Though a timetable has not yet been provided, Sabres management and ownership have traditionally waited a week after the season to address the media.
That left the focus on the players to sum up what went wrong and how the Sabres can proceed forward with a core group that has missed the playoffs three times in the past five seasons, and has yet to win a playoff round.
“Yeah, we’ve had our short-comings,” Miller said. “I think there’s enough talent in that group of guys to be on a winning hockey club. But we didn’t get the job done, and that takes some soul searching.”
Miller got off to a slow start and his season unraveled further in mid-November, when he sustained a concussion and whiplash after being bowled over by Bruins’ forward Milan Lucic in a 6-2 loss at Boston. Miller missed the next nine games, and he and the Sabres didn’t recover until the NHL All-Star break.
Miller at least closed by going 20-6-5 to finish with a 31-21-7 record and set the team’s single-season record with six shutouts.
Midseason injuries to Myers and fellow defenseman Christian Ehrhoff contributed to the skid.
The Sabres offense also struggled. Thomas Vanek finished 26 goals, the fewest since his rookie season in 2005-06. Derek Roy scored 17, his lowest total in a season in which he’s played 70 or more games.
There were bright spots, particularly the play of rookie forward Marcus Foligno, whose big-bodied presence provided a boost down the stretch. He finished with six goals and 13 points in 14 games.
The Sabres also filled a need at center at the trade deadline by acquiring Cody Hodgson in a deal with Vancouver. After failing to register a point in his first 10 games in Buffalo, Hodgson had three goals and eight points in his final 10.
“We have a good character group of guys here,” Vanek said. “Where we were two months ago, I think a lot of teams would’ve shut it down. We didn’t.
“But at the end of the day, we couldn’t get it done.”