After last night’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Blackhawks dropped their record to 7-17-5, the most glaring hole on this year’s Buffalo Sabres continues to be their lack of grit and toughness. When they traded Marcus Foligno in the offseason, few of us could have imagined how badly this team would miss him.
Now some would argue that losing a third-line player shouldn’t have that big of an impact on a lineup. While that may be true for the better teams in the NHL, Buffalo is not one of those.
Foligno finished the 2016-17 regular season fifth in the league with 279 hits. Buffalo’s complete lack of a forecheck is where Marcus’s absence is most glaring. This team struggles mightily to keep up any kind of sustained pressure because they lack the kind of players willing to get their noses dirty in the corners and along the boards to win those all-important puck battles.
Where Has the Passion on This Team Gone?
Night in and night out, I watch this team and think to myself, “Can anyone light a fire under this group?” I don’t want to question Phil Housley’s ability to motivate players 29 games into his first season as coach, but one is left to wonder if his message is getting across. Or for that matter, what exactly is the message?
Marcus Foligno was not only popular with Sabres fans, but he was a well-respected member of that locker room for several years. Other players followed his lead, especially from a physical standpoint. How many hits like this have we seen this year?
Other than Evander Kane, this year’s group of forwards have been allergic to throwing their weight around. Players like Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Jordan Nolan, who before the season would have been pointed to as candidates to fill the physical void left by Foligno, have underwhelmed, to say the least.
In Nolan’s case, why would Housley continue to put him in the lineup if he’s not doing the things they acquired him for? He’s been in one fight all season, and while we know this isn’t the NHL of the mid-90s, a good scrap still energizes a team, especially one so desperate for some inspiration.
Both Girgensons and Larsson, two players who showed a lot of promise a few years ago as future difference-makers, have regressed to the point where Girgensons has been a healthy scratch the last two games and Larsson could be the next one to watch from the press box.
Lack of Scoring a Direct Result of No Forecheck
This Sabres team has plenty of shortcomings unrelated to Foligno’s departure, namely mediocre goaltending and one of the weakest blue lines in the league. But above all else, their inability to sustain a forecheck and create turnovers is the main reason they’re the lowest scoring team in the NHL.
When the opposing D worry about being buried into the boards, it leads to poor decision-making and giveaways. But when there’s a complete and utter lack of intensity and aggression to your offensive-zone pressure, defensemen can take their time, examine the ice, and make a breakout pass with ease.
This group’s unwillingness to battle in the corners and take a beating in front of the net is a recipe for failure. Although Foligno will never be mistaken for a scoring juggernaut, he was more than willing to absorb repeated crosschecks in front of the net and screen the goalie. Who does that for this team now in his absence?
With that said, Foligno’s presence and what he brings to the ice is evident to his new team, and especially his new coach. When asked about Marcus’s first shift in a game in November vs. Montreal, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said, “It got the team going. He had three of those hits in his first shift last game and I could see the bench kind of perk up right off the bat. That was good.”
Sabres fans are desperate to see someone spark this team. In a community and a city that prides itself on its working-class image, its hockey team couldn’t be further from that ideal right now. It needs some players who will give their all and sacrifice their body every shift they’re on the ice. You know, players like Marcus Foligno.