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