During the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons the Buffalo Sabres were one of the worst teams in recent NHL history. We’re not just talking “worst team in the NHL” bad. We’re talking “expansion team performance” level bad.
Much of it was by design. It was a total organizational teardown in an effort to rebuild the organization from the ground up, with the centerpieces being the top draft picks they were able to land in 2014 (Sam Reinhart) and 2015 (Jack Eichel, after losing the Connor McDavid lottery).
After landing Eichel the days of tearing down were finished, and the attention then turned to acquiring veteran talent to accompany the new young core. General manager Tim Murray made several high profile moves before the start of the 2015-16 season to add Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and Robin Lehner to the roster, and a Stanley Cup winning coach in Dan Bylsma behind the bench, in the hopes that it would get the team moving in the right direction. They followed that up by adding Kyle Okposo in free agency before this season.
While the team is not the complete embarrassment it was during the “tanking” years, there really hasn’t been much significant progress made either.
After finishing in 14th place in the Eastern Conference in 2015-16 (15 points out of a playoff spot) they actually took a small step backwards this season, finishing with three fewer points and somehow further away from the playoffs than they were a year ago. Even worse, there was nothing to suggest that it was a team that was even close to competing, finishing with the fourth-worst 5-on-5 shot attempt differential in the league.
The lack of progress — not to mention the regression — has to be even more more frustrating for the Sabres and their fans when they look across the NHL and see teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers (the two teams that picked No. 1 overall in the past two drafts and two teams that have been nothing more than a punch line in the NHL for the better part of the past decade) not only in the playoffs, but playing extremely competitive hockey.
The Maple Leafs are hanging with the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals punch-for-punch, while the Oilers are giving the defending Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks everything they can handle (that 7-0 drubbing in Game 4 being the exception).
Making matters worse is that the offseason has gotten off to a bit of a tumultuous start, and the team’s best player — Eichel — has been at the center of a lot of it.
During his final media availability of the season he was brutally honest in his assessment of how the culture around the team needs to change. One week later a report surfaced that he would not be willing to sign a long-term contract extension with the team if Bylsma remained the coach. That report was denied by both Eichel and his agent.
Eichel attempted to clear the air in an interview with the Buffalo News on Wednesday, saying he wants to be a part of the organization when it starts to win.
“I want to be a Sabre and I want to be a Sabre for a long time and I want to be a part of Buffalo when we win. I know it’s an organization that is capable of doing that, and I want to be a part of it, and I want to be a centerpiece of it.”
Not even 24 hours later, both Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray were fired.
There are a few things you can be fairly confident about with this situation. The first is that the Sabres, no matter who the general manager and coach are, are not going to let Eichel get away anytime soon. With him being eligible to sign a long-term contract extension after July 1, and not eligible for unrestricted free agency for several more years, it is quite possible — if not likely — that he ends up getting a long-term contract sooner rather than later.
Players like him simply do not get let go or traded, unless it is the Peter Chiarelli era Boston Bruins.
The second is that Eichel was always going to outlast Bylsma in Buffalo. Not because he made some sort of demand or pushed for the firing to take place, but because that is simply the nature of the business that is professional sports. The star always outlasts the coach.
The problem for the Sabres is that they are at a point now where they are starting over from scratch behind the bench and in the front office and are at risk of wasting what is one of the most valuable assets in the salary cap NHL — a young, star forward on an entry level contract.
In a league where every dollar spent matters, it is a massive advantage to have a top-line player (and Eichel most certainly is, finishing 11th in the NHL in points per game this season) on one of these contracts.
In recent years, teams like Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago were all able to capitalize on those legally cheap years to build the foundation of contending teams that were starting to make deep postseason runs (and in the case of Pittsburgh and Chicago, actually win a championship). The Maple Leafs and Oilers are starting the process now.
Well, they are still near last place in the Eastern Conference, and along with having to invest big money in Eichel (not to mention Reinhart) at some point over the next year or two, they already have several sizable contracts on their cap for the next several seasons. That available salary cap space disappears quickly, and the Sabres still have to find ways to fill the remainder of the roster and upgrade what was one of the worst defensive units in the NHL this season. It is not going to be an easy fix for the new general manager.
All of the bad hockey between 2012 and 2015 was supposed to be worth the temporary pain because of the better days that were going to soon follow. Instead, the frustration has only continued.
Only now it might be worse because the expectation at this point is for the team to win. In some ways, the same even further away than they were a couple of years ago.