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If the Sabres are going to suck, Ted Nolan needs to reward players who prioritize 'team'

When everyone says your team is going to suck and you’re hoping to prove them wrong, getting outshot 131-57 and outscored 14-4 en route to a 0-3-0 start is kind of the opposite of what you need. Just sayin’.

The Buffalo Sabres were never going to be a playoff team this season, but there were certainly people who thought they’d be better than last year when they tallied 52 points, the lowest total in the NHL since 2000-01. I’m sure some of those people are in their dressing room.

In fairness, they still very well might. But something happens when you realize you’re on a trainwreck of a team that kills your chances of even looking respectable. Players understandably change their focus from “team” to “player.” That’s less than ideal three games into the season.

When you’re on a squad that’s not going to out-talent anyone, your best chance to hang is to play tight hockey as a unit. If you can at least rely on one another to be positionally sound - something that doesn’t take talent, just a functional thinking machine - you can minimize the damage against. Once you’ve kept the goals against down, you have to rely on some luck to earn some wins. Your goal becomes getting pucks through to the net where you can win a few battles around the crease and hope things bounce your way.

But again, that’s the opposite of the natural reaction in these situations. Since the team isn’t going to do anything meaningful, players start to play for their own career advancement. Whether you lose 40 or 50 games in regulation doesn’t matter, you’re still missing the playoffs, so guys aim to stack up personal numbers like they’re back in junior being scouted for the draft. Just because the logo on the front is taking a thrashing doesn’t mean the name on the back should suffer, right? Pro sports is a competitive world.

That’s what I saw from the Sabres against the Anaheim Ducks on Monday. On top of being out-talented, you’re seeing players cheat up ice hoping for a bounce, which hurts their defensive positioning. There are young players jockeying with one another for position on the depth chart who who seem resistant to simplicity, because that doesn’t do much for their stock. And of course, you’ve got a team that’s openly not giving itself the best chance to win in hopes of pushing prospects along, so a guy like Sam Reinhart has been getting 13 minutes a game despite looking every bit the junior player he still is (22 percent in the faceoff circle, two shots through three games, zero total hits, and a boatload of giveaways, despite them not being recorded).

And boy, is Ted Nolan not loving it.

From his post-game interview: “That was like an NHL team playing against a peewee team. They dominated us from start to finish… This is one of the premier teams in the league, and it shows you exactly how far we’ve got to go. They were two steps ahead.”

He followed that up Tuesday morning by adding “Sometimes it just looks like certain players don’t care… It’s not one or two guys. It’s a handful.”

I think they care, just about the wrong things right now.

So that’s the challenge for Buffalo, Ted Nolan, and the team’s leadership group. There are 79 games left on their NHL calendar, but this is a team whose aspirations lie in seasons beyond, which means individualistic play needs to be teased out and squashed.

If Buffalo’s youth is going to be shaped into the players that drive the Sabres of the future, they need to understand that if nothing else, players who put in the effort and pay attention to positional play are going to be rewarded. What more can you ask, at this point?

It can be disheartening wading into a long season of losing, but that doesn’t mean the team concept should drown.

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