In this Jan. 11, 2012 photo, Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller passes pucks during NHL hockey practice in Buffalo, N.Y. Inconsistent goaltending, a popgun offense and a rash of injuries have combined to dash the high expectations that followed new owner Terry Pegula's free-spending summer. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
BUFFALO, N.Y. - Forward Drew Stafford sits at his stall in the Buffalo Sabres' envy-of-the-NHL, extravagantly renovated locker room attempting to keep his frustrations in check and hopes buoyed.
It's not lost on Stafford in the midst of these spare-no-expenses surroundings—the fine hardwood panelling, glossy pictures, cushy lounge, high-tech gadgetry and players with lucrative long-term contracts, including his own—that the Sabres haven't come close to fulfilling their end of the Stanley Cup-contending dream new owner Terry Pegula laid out when he took over 11 months ago.
"You're definitely disappointed. There's some frustration in here," Stafford said. "With all the changes, new players, new locker room, new ownership, all the new stuff, there's going to be high expectations. And when that doesn't work out the right way, it's tough."
For all the money spent—the US$6-plus-million Pegula paid to upgrade the players' area was nothing compared to the nearly $140 million he committed to contracts this off-season—there have been minimal results, leaving little joy in a town that's affectionately redubbed itself "Pegulaville."
"We're staying positive. We have hope and we have belief," Stafford said. "We're not sitting in here thinking that the season's slipping away."
Not yet anyway, but time is running out.
In passing the midpoint of their season, the Sabres, as they nudge up against the NHL salary-cap, have been among the league's biggest flops.
Buffalo's 18-19-5 record entering this weekend might be exactly the same as it was a year ago before the team went on a second-half surge to secure seventh place on the final weekend of the season. And yet there have been few signs to indicate this squad is capable of duplicating that run.
Since a 10-5 start, the Sabres hadn't won consecutive games.
After hosting Toronto on Friday, the Sabres play their next seven on the road, where they've lost seven straight in regulation to match a franchise-worst skid.
Their star goalie, Ryan Miller, acknowledges he's having difficulty finding his swagger.
"It's tough when things aren't going your way to keep believing that it's going to go your way," Miller said. "I know so far this season it probably hasn't been quite the level I need to be. But I don't feel I'm too far off."
When it's not goaltending, it's the offence, which has suddenly dried up, having scored two or more goals just five times during a recent 2-6-2 stretch.
And their troubles have been compounded by a rash of injuries. Buffalo's had 18 players miss at least one game due to injury. That includes Miller missing nine games with whiplash/concussion, and star defenceman Tyler Myers missing 19 games with a broken wrist.
Things became so bad that leading goal scorer Thomas Vanek was limited to playing the first period of a 2-0 loss at Toronto on Tuesday because of an upset stomach that's likely related to food poisoning.
"It adds to the list of shake your head," coach Lindy Ruff said of Vanek's illness.
Ruff hasn't been immune from criticism. In his 14th season in Buffalo and the Sabres winningest coach, he's facing questions of whether his message has grown stale.
"I'm doing good, thanks for asking," Ruff said, when asked how he's holding up. "I stopped and got a coffee this morning on the way to the rink."
At least he's not lost his sense of humour.
"My job is to keep these guys up," Ruff said. "There's a certain level of frustration that you can see walking in the room."
This is not what anyone signed up for after the Sabres spent the off-season pulling off a series of bold moves. It began during a weeklong stretch in late June, when Buffalo acquired veteran defencemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff in trades, and then landed forward Ville Leino in free agency.
The expectations grew even higher in September, when the team signed Myers to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract extension.
Those high hopeshave come crashing down with a fan base that's grown anxious.
"Well, you had a reasonable expectation for the playoffs, but that's looking like a pipe dream," said John Lewandowski. He was among 2,100 fans attending a viewing party the team hosted Tuesday for Time-Warner Cable customers affected by the cable company's dispute with MSG, the Sabres' TV broadcaster.
"Fans are starting to turn," Lewandowski said. "We're wondering when (Pegula) is going to do something, and why he hasn't stepped up to do something."
Even worse, some fans are questioning the team's passion.
"The only time we saw this team have heart is when the veterans were injured and the young guys were up," Chad Thomson said. "I wouldn't mind them dumping some of the veterans."
General manager Darcy Regier can appreciate fans' concerns in light of the high hopes in September.
"I think the great thing that Terry brought are the expectations," Regier said. "We're all cognizant of it, we're all working with it, and we're trying to live up to them."
That doesn't mean he's going to act rashly.
Based on current trade talks, Regier said the marketplace for making a deal isn't yet established. He noted it's also been difficult to evaluate the Sabres immediate needs due to the number of injuries.
"I actually am more focused on where we're going than where we are. Where we've been is obvious," Regier said. "The first half has been disappointing."