January 20, 2012 - 9:14 AM
I've been covering the Sabres for a decade, and the worst team was the first team. This year's squad is giving that one competition.
The 2002-03 edition went 27-37-10-8 (10 ties and eight overtime losses). The Sabres finished 12th in the Eastern Conference and 26th overall in the NHL. They had a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2.
They couldn't score, ranking 25th in the league with 190 goals. Only Miroslav Satan (26) and Ales Kotalik (21) topped 20.
They were mediocre at stopping the puck, ranking 13th in goals allowed. The crease was a constant question mark because neither Martin Biron, Ryan Miller nor Mika Noronen could take control. They all finished with losing records.
There was a steady stream of call-ups, and coach Lindy Ruff evaluated the games of Norm Milley and Jason Botterill with quotes such as, "He tried to work at it," and, "We knew what we were getting." (As an aside, I didn't have to look those up. Those are probably the two most memorable quotes Ruff has ever given me.)
There was also little hope. Bankruptcy was coming, and no one knew who'd be in control of the team. There was no embraceable player to latch on to, the kind you believe can carry a team by himself.
It's similar this year.
Following Thursday's 4-1 loss to Winnipeg, the Sabres are 19-23-5. They are 11th in the Eastern Conference, with a big caveat -- if the Islanders, Canadiens and Lightning win their games in hand, the Sabres will drop to 14th among the 15 teams in the East. They are 23rd in the NHL but could fall to 26th.
They have lost 11 straight on the road. They haven't won back-to-back games since Nov. 11.
They can't score, ranking 25th in the NHL, the same as 2002-03. Once again, they have only two players (Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville) on pace to score at least 20 goals.
They are worse at stopping the puck, ranking 26th. Miller is 43rd in goals-against average (3.16) and 40th in save percentage (.897). Enroth started well and is playing OK lately, but he couldn't take control while Miller was injured.
There's been a steady stream of call-ups, and Ruff has repeatedly said he's had to change his system and game plans because of them.
And, once again, there's little hope. Ownership is in strong hands, but like 2002-03, fans don't see anyone in control of the team. The players aren't responding to the coach. The general manager has not made one move to alter the skid. There are few, if any, embraceable players capable of carrying the team.
At least in 2002-03, the Sabres knew they were bad. They traded Chris Gratton, Stu Barnes, Vaclav Varada and Rob Ray to try and build for the future. One prize was Danny Briere, who did indeed help the future.
This year's squad keeps saying it will be better when healthy. There's no talk of building for the future.
If they don't, the question of the worst team in a decade becomes a no-brainer.