By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Their run together stands at 423 total games over five fruitless seasons. In that time, the Sabres’ homegrown core players have earned two playoff appearances and zero series wins.
Most teams would’ve broken up that group years ago. The Sabres have plodded forward, mostly keeping it intact despite little success.
But a veteran star could finally be jettisoned following a bitterly disappointing ninth-place finish this season. A club constructed to hoist the Stanley Cup this spring couldn’t even qualify for the playoffs.
Something must change, right?
Lindy Ruff, a coach notoriously hard on his players both privately and publicly, laid much of this season’s failure on the group, telling WGR 550 over the weekend, “We put it on the core group of players, and for me it’s a tough situation to be in because we battled hard to get back but we didn’t get there.”
Center Derek Roy, who endured a brutal 17-goal, 44-point season, doesn’t like the finger-pointing, though.
“We’re all in it together,” Roy said Monday inside the First Niagara Center as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers. “I don’t think pointing fingers is … everybody, from Day One, worked hard together. We did some good things. We did some bad things obviously. It’s a long season. There’s ups and downs.
“To be pointing fingers right now is obviously tough. When you’re getting paid to produce, obviously fingers are pointed this way.”
Roy believes criticism “behind closed doors” is fine.
“You can be hard,” he said. “It’s not fun, but it’s good to be hard on players behind closed doors, on the bench to get them pumped up. I don’t know. I’m not a coach. But I don’t think it’s the right thing to be saying it to the media, either.”
Roy, now the Sabres’ most polarizing presence and biggest underachiever with Tim Connolly gone, could’ve punched his ticket out town with his comments and poor performance this season.
Ruff’s relationship with his core players was a popular topic Monday. Most said they can accept their coach’s tough love.
“We’ve always had that relationship since Day One,” said Sabres winger Thomas Vanek, who’s drawn Ruff’s ire for, among other things, taking too many penalties. “It’s not something that changed. … I’ve played 500-some games. It’s not like he just started doing it two months ago. He’s tough on his guys. You got to respect that and play.”
Sabres captain Jason Pominville added: “Part of the reason he’s hard on us is he knows he can get more out of us when he pushes us more. I think different guys handle it different ways.”
Sabres winger Drew Stafford has established a relationship with Ruff and can handle what he tells the media.
“I know what he expects out of me,” he said. “I know what I expect out of myself. And obviously when things aren’t going well, there’s going to be frustration. There’s going to be yelling. The atmosphere here, you lose and it’s miserable for everybody.”
As they packed up their belongings and said their good-byes Monday, the Sabres acknowledged they experienced an arduous campaign. Leaving so soon was a bit surreal.
“It (stinks). It’s no fun,” Pominville said. “It’s the worst day of the year, but probably even more so this year because of the offseason acquisitions we made and expectations were a lot higher for the group. I think this group is capable of so much more.”
Pominville refused to lean on injuries or make other excuses, saying, “We just didn’t do it.”
Still, the Sabres showcased the makings of an elite team, going on a 19-5-5 tear from Jan. 24 until March 27. They roared up from the Eastern Conference cellar and briefly reached eighth place a couple of times before three late losses kicked them back down.
“I consider this season a failure, especially knowing the potential we had coming into the season,” Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. “The way we played the last 30 games of the year, knowing we could play that well, it’s devastating to not make the playoffs.”
But a wretched start left them little margin for error.
“That’s on everybody, every single person in this organization,” goalie Ryan Miller said about the team’s play prior to late January. “It’s on everybody.”
Is Miller, who called 2011-12 a “wasted” season, confident the Sabres are going in the right direction?
“We’ll see,” he said. “I can’t answer that one right now because I’m frustrated. I’m disappointed. We’re obviously not going in the right direction if we’re not in the playoffs. But who’s to say in a few months that we won’t have the right combination of guys and the attitude?”
Miller hopes the Sabres’ core remains intact.
“They’re good players,” he said. “There has to be a decision about what kind of game we’re going to play. Yeah, we have our shortcomings. I think there’s enough talent in that group of guys to be on a winning hockey club and a club that can develop into a winning club.
“But we didn’t get the job done, and that takes some soul-searching here because we have to be at a higher level.”
Ruff wasn’t available for comment Monday. He might address the media later this week.