Opinions from the desk
The Dark Years (TDY) 2015-2018
With Murray's team moulded in the way he had always wanted, Buffalo was set to finally make a push for the playoffs. With the core of Eichel, Kane, Reinhart, Ristolainen, O'Reilly, Bogosian, and Lehner in net, this team was good enough to make the playoffs. Much to their surprise, Buffalo bottomed out with an 81 point season, which was good enough to place 7th in their division. Reeling from a disappointing season, they selected Alexander Nylander 8th overall in the 2016 draft. The Sabres had one goal in mind when entering free agency in 2016 on July 1st, they were going to land a big name. They ended up paying $42M over 7 years to sign Kyle Okposo, who just had played three very solid seasons on John Tavares wing. He averaged around 0.88 points a game over those three seasons, and Buffalo was giddy to land him.
Finally, this team was ready to make the playoffs. Fans had been waiting five seasons, but now with a potential first line winger added in free agency, they were built to win. Even though Buffalo added so many pieces, it never translated to success and they finished with an even worse record than the year before. Ownership finally had enough, they fired Tim Murray, and replaced him with Jason Botterill, who had just won the second of back-to-back championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins as Assistant General Manager. With control of the Sabres, Botterill was content on tinkering with Buffalo before tearing them apart.
My Take On The Dark Years (TDY) Era
The Dark Years was a perfect case of the accelerated rebuild failing. Even with their savior Jack Eichel playing through his entry level contract, which gave Buffalo extra cap space, the team was not good enough to make the playoffs. This was all a result of trying to make a playoff team without the proper players. Buffalo had an average goalie, a shaky defence, and a forward group that never found a rhythm. No matter how many changes the Sabres made, they could not get their team into the playoffs. I find when teams decide to throw a potential rebuild in the trash for playoff contention, they keep adding players that are currently in the NHL, regardless of the cost or effect they will have on the team. This broken philosophy is based on the idea that if a team adds enough good players, the team will eventually win. For example, the Kyle Okposo signing was such a joke. Yes, he did have some great seasons. Yes, at the time he was a 28 year old former 7th overall pick that looked ready to dominate, but did anyone pause for a minute and think about the bigger picture? Buffalo threw $6M at Okposo with the dream that he could replicate his production from the New York Islanders, but he was playing with John Tavares! I mean come on! Did no one in the organization take a step back and think that he might have had an inflated production rate from playing with a top ten player in the world? I am no NHL executive, but it sure crossed my mind the second they gave him $6M for 7 years. Okposo is now an overpaid player with around 0.63 points per game over his last two seasons in Buffalo. It is not an awful contract, but he was not the savior they were trying to sign that offseason. No matter how many players like Okposo, Beaulieu, or Scandella Buffalo has tried to add, the only real solution for adding quality players comes from drafting players like Casey Mittelstadt. (This applies to all teams to except for Boston, who keep adding players to an aging core, and somehow stay elite)
Post Evander Kane (PEK) 2018-Present
Botterill finally decided his last place team was not going to make the playoffs, so he offloaded some of Buffalo's core. The first player to leave was Evander Kane to the San Jose Sharks, just before the trade deadline. Buffalo recouped a 2019 first round pick (because Kane re-signed in San Jose), which was a pretty decent haul for a player that has the skill to be great, but possesses a questionable personality. The next domino to fall was Ryan O'Reilly, who was shipped off to St. Louis. Since O'Reilly is a highly regarded centre, the Sabres got Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, a first round pick in 2019, and a second round pick in 2021. These moves clearly demonstrated that Buffalo was finally looking to start rebuilding again, as they planned on doing back in 2012. The next few decisions all line up with this direction for the team. Accordingly, the Pittsburgh Penguins offloaded Matt Hunwick's contract to Buffalo, and in return they also gave the Sabres Conor Sheary, who was instrumental on Crosby's wing when Pittsburgh won their back-to-back Stanley Cups. Then at the 2018 draft, Buffalo grabbed the highly regarded Rasmus Dahlin 1st overall, breaking the Buffalo curse of losing the draft lottery. It all finally looked like Buffalo was going to commit to a rebuild, and they would have a prosperous future.
My Take On The PEK Era
I was so excited to write this article where I praised Buffalo for committing to a rebuild after a tumultuous past. Too bad they went out and decided to trade picks and prospects for a top 6 winger, who may leave in free agency after one season. Even if the Jeff Skinner trade is a win for them as an isolated transaction, adding a top 6 winger for a last place team is not the answer! I do acknowledge that this new group in Buffalo looks better than any team in the last seven years, but that is not the point. They have an elite young core in Eichel, Mittelstadt, Dahlin, Thompson, Reinhart, and Ristolainen, but they are starting to mortgage young players and picks for immediate help to make the playoffs. Stop me if you have heard this story before. Buffalo is going down the path (again) to be a playoff team, with little hope of contending for the championship. Cup contenders need replacement players on entry level deals ready to play in the NHL when they start having to paying their core a significant part of their salary cap. It is tough to find these replacement players when Buffalo keeps trading picks and prospects to make a last place team just good enough to make the playoff immediately.
If the Sabres stick to the plan they laid out when they acquired all those picks for Kane and O’Reilly, then they are going to be on their way to contend for the Stanley Cup. Yet, if they keep ditching prospects and draft picks for NHL players, while they are not yet an elite team, then they will cripple their chances at a Stanley Cup.
I do not know how many times Buffalo can make the same mistakes, and expect different results. I believe that is called insanity.
- The Scout
When I started watching hockey in 2010, the Buffalo Sabres were a competitive team, lead by the game changing Ryan Miller. The same Ryan Miller that gave Canada fits in the 2010 Olympic Games. This window of playoff contention ended in 2012 when the Buffalo Sabres missed the playoffs after making it the two previous seasons. Ever since then, Buffalo has been absent from the playoffs, a streak that is currently seven years. When Buffalo first started to struggle, they decided to try and rebuild their organization. Seven years later, they still are one of the basement dwellers, and it seems like they have not learned their lesson.
There are four distinct eras in modern Buffalo Sabres history. In each one, the organization took a different direction on how they planned to win the Stanley Cup. Those eras are: Before Tim Murray (BTM), Pre Jack Eichel (PJE), The Dark Years (TDY), and Post Evander Kane (PEK). Examining these eras can help us as observers comprehend how Buffalo thought they could become a playoff team. After I break down the major events of each era, I will offer my own opinion on each time period.
Before Tim Murray (BTM) 2011-2013
This era begins with the last years of Darcy Regier’s reign as GM, in which there seemed to be a clear direction in mind for the franchise. The Sabres were coming off a disappointing game 7 loss in the first round to Philadelphia in 2011. They went on to have a decent season in 2011-12, but were clearly sellers at the deadline. Accordingly, Buffalo shipped out Paul Gaustad for a first round pick at the deadline, signalling the start of a rebuild. At the 2012 draft, the Sabres had two first round picks and two second round picks, before packaging the 21st and 42nd overall picks to move up and pick Zemgus Girgensons 14th overall. The Sabres had started to obtain an abundance of draft picks, and used them to build their prospect pool.
The 2012-13 shorten season saw Buffalo go 21-21-6, and that was the first season the rebuild truly took effect. Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr, and Jason Pominville were all shipped out of town, and main assets received in return were: 4 second round picks, Johan Larsson (who was a former second round pick), and a first round pick. Darcy Regier was clearly trying to accumulate assets for a rebuild. This was shown when Buffalo had six selections in the first three rounds of the draft in 2013. He was also very careful not to make any huge free agent signings, and the biggest contract Darcy handed out was to his own player Cody Hodgson for 25.5M over 5 years.
My Take On The BTM Era
I was so excited for Buffalo's future when they decided to aggressively tear down their core and start a rebuild. Ryan Miller was an elite goalie at the time, but even with his outstanding play, Buffalo was not going anywhere. Darcy Regier did an amazing job squeezing as much value from his assets as he could. Correspondingly, there was an emphasis on acquiring draft picks, and Buffalo's scouting department did a solid job finding talented prospects.
Pre Jack Eichel (PJE) 2013-2015
No more was Buffalo going to be in the bottom of the standings, they were going to win! Ironically, this season was the first horrible season the Sabres had dealt with (there are worse seasons to come). With newly appointed general manager Tim Murray at the helm, they finished with 52 points that season. Those measly 52 points gave the Sabres the 2nd overall pick in the 2014 draft, after losing the draft lottery to Florida. While in their free fall that season, Murray made a few trades, but most notably Miller was finally let go for the key pieces of William Carrier, a first round pick, and third round pick. That was the last time Buffalo was concerned with adding draft picks while Tim Murray was in charge. After selecting Sam Reinhart 2nd overall, they went into free agency looking to make a splash.
The Sabres entered the 2014-15 season with a swagger that would hopefully push them over the edge and make them a playoff team. Too bad for Buffalo, they only improved by two points. They were given the consolation prize of franchise player Jack Eichel in the McDavid draft because they lost the draft lottery again. Prior to the 2015 draft, Buffalo knew that they were getting a top 2 draft pick because of how awfully they were playing, so they made a blockbuster deal in February. The Sabres acquired Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane from Winnipeg. Those two players were considered huge additions for Buffalo because in their mind, Bogosian was a former 3rd overall pick that was eventually going to be a top pairing defensemen (Spoiler: he did not become a top 2 defensemen) and Kane was a 23 year old 30 goal scorer, who was unjustly ran out of town for personality reasons. In return for these two, the important pieces that the Sabres gave Winnipeg were: Brendan Lemieux (31st overall selection in 2014), Joel Armia (16th overall in 2011), Tyler Myers (2010 rookie of the year and 12th overall in 2008), and a 1st round pick. They basically gave Winnipeg 4 first round selections (31st overall virtually being a late first round pick) for Kane and Bogosian. This trend of trading picks and prospects continued when Buffalo traded for Ryan O`Reilly, Jamie McGinn, Robin Lehner, and David Legwand at the 2015 draft. It only cost them: a first round pick, two former first round picks in Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, a former second round pick JT Compher, and a second round pick. After a quite free agency period, Buffalo was going into next season with an elite Jack Eichel, and some NHL proven players to support him. The 2016 season was finally going to be the year Buffalo was good enough to make the playoffs.
Buffalo made a notably bad trades for Kane, Bogosian, and Lehner, but even the O'Reilly trade was not worth it. They may have won the O'Reilly trade, but Buffalo was never going to be better than a playoff team because they had very few young prospects to lift them to contender status. The point of building through the draft is to have a huge prospect bank to pull from. If enough of those prospects become NHL players, then you have a contender on your hands. Instead, Buffalo elected to trade 6 first round picks or former first round picks, and 3 second round picks or former second round picks (that includes the 31st and 32nd overall picks!). They decimated a majority of their prospect pool for Ryan O`Reilly (an elite 2nd line centre), Robin Lehner (a fringe starting goalie), Zach Bogosian (a second pairing defenseman), and Evander Kane (a 2nd line winger with personality issues). Consequently, the Sabres were so caught up in trying to make the playoffs that they ruined their prospect pool that was so skillfully built by Darcy Regier.
Next week, I will cover the other two eras that brought the Sabres to where they currently are today.
- The Scout
This is an ongoing series of articles that evaluates what teams are trying to accomplish through: trades, signings, draft selections, personnel changes, and other aspects of a NHL team. Presently, the Tampa Bay Lightning are trying to win a Stanley Cup and the New York Rangers are clearly starting a rebuild. Those are both teams with a clear mandate for the future, unlike the teams I will be covering in this series. I will be writing about franchises that do not have a clear direction for the future of their hockey club. This will be accomplished by outlining the team's current situation, and presenting the evidence that demonstrates a rebuild or an attempt to immediately win the Stanley Cup. Then, I will conclude what I believe the team's direction should be.
This 2017-18 season marked the end of the Chicago Blackhawks' nine year playoff streak. This modern incarnation of the franchise is now entering unfamiliar territory. For a team that history considers a post salary cap era dynasty, they are not used to receiving top 10 selections in the draft, as they did in the 2018 draft. The Blackhawks have made a concerted effort to stay on top of the league through constant injections of young talent throughout the roster, salary cap savvy signings, and trades that recouped assets for players they could not afford anymore. However, with the long term injury to their goalie Corey Crawford, the skeleton defence core, and an under producing forward group, Chicago has created an unstable team that collapsed during the 2017-18 season. Between salary cap restrictions bullying the Blackhawks into trading away key assets, questionable trade and signing decisions by the hockey operations group, and their scouting department's inability to be a top three producer of talent (which is a lot to ask of them), they have put themselves on the perimeter of Stanley Cup contention. This begs the question, should they accept their inevitable fate and dismantle their current roster, or should they take their core and make one last attempt to win the Stanley Cup?
I will preface this section with the fact that I am a Chicago Blackhawks fan. I really would like to see the Blackhawks win another Stanley Cup. However, I am also a huge believer in early rebuilds. Teams can flip their elite stars for huge prospect packages, and it can create a contender very quickly. Chicago has enough young forwards and defensive prospects to successfully create an accelerated rebuild, but I personally believe that they need to make one last push for the Stanley Cup. For that to work, first and foremost Crawford has to be healthy or else they should just call it an era and start again. Hear me out, Toews is an elite #1 centre, Kane is a top 5 point producer in the NHL, Keith is still a top 2 defensemen (top 4 if you want to be picky), and Crawford (health) is a top 5 goalie in the NHL. Along with high end young players like Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat, and Brandon Saad, that is a core that is able to compete for a Stanley Cup right away.
I want to be clear, I have no illusions of another cap-era dynasty with Chicago. This team is good enough to win one last Stanley Cup with this current core. They might not get as much trade value from their stars if they choose to do this, but the point of a rebuild is to win the Stanley Cup. Why would you not take advantage of an opportunity to win while you can? It would be well worth it to make one last strong push while this core is still elite.
There are two things that would need to be done immediately if Chicago is going to win one last Stanley Cup. First off the Blackhawks have to get rid of Seabrook right away. This is not up for discussion, and he needs to go no matter what the cost is. I love Seabrook and everything he has done for Chicago, but he has not performed well enough to justify his $6.875M, 8 year contract. To prove this point, during the 2017-18 season, there are key metrics that show the brutal truth of Seabrook’s level of play. As Scott Powers, the lead writer for The Athletic Chicago, points out:
Those common advanced analytics tell us that when Seabrook was deployed as a top 4 defensemen, there were more shots taken on his team than Chicago generated in around 55% of the games he played. When Quenneville played him as a bottom pairing defensemen, his team was out chanced in only around 33% of his games. Furthermore, it would not be worth it to buy out Seabrook since he would carry a buyout penalty of as high as $6.8M, and that would not do the Blackhawks any good if they are trying to win today. Ultimately, Chicago should beg and plead with him to waive his no trade clause, and get his salary off the books. His $6.875M cap hit is not acceptable to pay a bottom pairing defensemen, especially on a team that is trying to win a Stanley Cup. Chicago could find much better use for that $6.875M if they were able to free up that cap space.
Chicago has too many good players to blow up their core. To retool and make one last push, the changes need to be immediate and drastic. They have enough talent to win between their experienced and skilled core, their dynamic young roster players, and their many high end tradable prospects. With this blueprint, I believe that Chicago could capture that elusive fourth Stanley Cup, an achievement that no post salary cap era franchise has ever accomplished.
- The Scout