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