By Budd Bailey
The Buffalo Sabres’ “tank” – the time in team history around 2013 to 2015 when the front office wasn’t particularly interested in winning games – remains the gift that keeps on giving.
The tumultuous series of interviews involving some of the Sabres’ players on Monday is merely the latest example of it. Let’s have a history lesson before looking at Wednesday’s events.
As you recall, the Sabres had been above the .500 mark from 2003-04 to 2012-13. But the core players from that era (Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, etc.) were getting older, and free agency was looming for them. The jettisoning of those players was the start a major rebuilding program in 2013-14. Then in 2014-15, with potential superstar Connor McDavid appearing on the horizon in the amateur draft, the Sabres’ organization opted to tear down more of the team in an effort to improve its chances of finishing last, winning the lottery, and grabbing McDavid. In other words, it tanked.
But it’s a risky process, as there was no guarantee of winning the lottery. Sure enough, Buffalo lost the top pick to Edmonton, and the Sabres claimed Jack Eichel as the consolation prize – a fine player at his best, but not McDavid. The subject of whether it’s worth playing to lose hockey games deliberately is an interesting one, particularly in a sport in which having a superstar is nice but it’s not everything – as opposed to say, basketball.
Much has happened to the Sabres since 2015, most of it bad. Everyone connected with the tank besides ownership is gone, and the culture of losing has infected the team for six years. Buffalo has tried to acquire some veterans to lead the army of young players forward, but generally those moves haven’t worked out as planned. Kyle Okposo has had injury problems, Ryan O’Reilly ran out of enthusiasm, and Evander Kane was said to have developed into a bad influence on the kids. The tank also influenced other decisions that look poor in hindsight – signing Jeff Skinner to a long-term contract, adding Taylor Hall on a one-year deal, and rushing Casey Mittelstadt to the NHL.
The Big Three
Still, one part of the rebuilding program worked reasonably well. The team’s first-round draft choices in the mid-2010s – Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart, and Eichel – have had seasons that have ranged from decent to excellent in the last few years (injuries not withstanding). By the end of the season, that group of players in their mid-20s could have been rationally expected to lead the team into the next few years.
And that was what was so disturbing about their comments on Monday. Ristolainen and Reinhart sounded like all of the losing in the past several years had just beaten down their spirits (although Reinhart hasn’t been enthusiastic in group media interviews in some time). Keep in mind that they will be unrestricted free agents in one more year, and both probably are willing to take that off-ramp. That limits Buffalo’s options. Can the Sabres afford to overpay either of them in an effort to keep them here? Would they want to do so? Would the two players even accept such an offer? Does a trade make more sense now than at the deadline in March?
Then there’s Eichel, who is in the midst of a suddenly bitter dispute about the medical treatment of the herniated disk in his back. Eichel would like to have an artificial disk inserted into the trouble area. That’s a relatively new procedure that doesn’t have much data concerning its effectiveness as a long-term cure, particularly for athletes. No NHL player apparently has had that procedure done. The Sabres are leery about taking that next step, and certainly with some justification. As general manager Kevyn Adams said during Wednesday’s news conference, “I don’t read MRIs. I listen to the experts. They all agree that conservative care is the way to go.”
The odd part about this particular situation is that Eichel chose to go nuclear over it. He certainly could have kept quiet until the 12-week period of rest and therapy finished in a few weeks. If nothing had healed by then, Eichel would have had a good case to take his favored medical path. By speaking out this week, he certainly sent a message to his teammates that he didn’t like the medical advice he was getting from the team. That can’t be good for morale. What’s more, don’t think potential free agents aren’t paying attention to that sort of statement – because they are. They might ask, “If the Sabres can’t make Jack Eichel happy, what’s going to happen to me?”
In his news conference, Adams spent plenty of time building up the next wave of Sabres’ players. That’s headed by Rasmus Dahlin, Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens. It’s standard operating procedure for a bad team, since you have to sell the future if you can’t sell the present. Still, when injuries and trades depleted the roster, those players had an opportunity to play significant minutes and they showed improvement under interim coach Don Granato – which probably is Granato’s best argument for keeping that job.
“We have a tremendous young core about players who truly are about this team and this city,” Adams said Wednesday. “I was impressed how mature they were. … But we can’t live there. We have to think about how we get better. I want players waking up thinking, how can I be the best version of myself? I’m not going to back down from that. I understand, there are players that have been through a lot. But we are going to get this right with the players who want to be there (italics mine).”
Ready to act?
Therefore, if Eichel, Ristolainen and Reinhart want to move on, Adams sounds more than happy to try to work something out. If the team wants to move away from its recent tradition of endless losing, it has to purge itself of its losing culture that more or less started with the Tank. Think of the deals as a vaccine to get rid of a virus. It is a rational approach to a difficult situation.
However, it comes with a big warning sign. Adams will have to work hard to receive equal value for any of those three players. Packages involving draft choices and young players might be involved, and it’s usually difficult to get equal value for known quantities in trades. It’s particularly true in the case of Eichel, as deals featuring a star for a star are difficult to complete. The more likely outcome is the case of O’Reilly, who was sent to the Blues by the Sabres for a large package that turned out to be pennies on the dollar.
In short, if the core of the Sabres is dealt away this summer, the rebuilding process target date certainly will be pushed back. The team already has missed the playoffs for 10 straight years. Patience is not in great supply around here, but it may be necessary to find some more of it if the team has hopes of getting it right this time.
See what happens with the hockey gods when you anger them by not playing to win? You suffer the consequences for years to come.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)