By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The oddest season in the 50-year history of the Buffalo Sabres came to an end on Monday. They missed the playoffs not on the ice, but via a news release and statement from Commissioner Gary Bettman.
The National Hockey League announced its plan to cancel the rest of the 2019-20 regular season. If all goes well, 24 teams will begin a tournament of sorts in perhaps a month or so. Eight teams will get byes, and the rest will start the elimination process. We’ll go from 24 teams to 16 to 8 to 4 to 2 to one champion. The last two rounds will feature a best-of-seven series, while the league is still working on the length of the other rounds – perhaps best-of-five. Eventually, we should get a Stanley Cup winner – emphasis on should.
This will happen, of course, if everything works perfectly. And let’s face it – there’s a chance that it won’t. All it will take is for one person with Covid-19 to walk by a team and infect it in the process, and everything becomes uncertain. If you remember, all it took was for one player in the NBA to test positive for the entire sports business to begin to completely unravel over the course of a few days.
Think that issue wasn’t on the mound of those with the potential to be involved? I asked Sabres’ Kyle Okposo, a new father, about that on Monday afternoon:
“This is such an interesting time, such an unprecedented time, and I was for sure nervous about getting on a plane and being gone from my family for what could have been months on end if we were in it,” he said. “That would have been really hard. It would have been tough for me to look at my wife and the four kids six and under, and say, ‘I’m taking off for two months. I’ll see you later.’ That would not have gone down well at my household.
“There’s so much more going on here than hockey. there’s so many things that this virus is impacting. There’s so many people out of work, nervous about the virus, nervous about underlying conditions. There’s such a polarizing side of it in that sense. It’s unfortunate to see.
“I was especially nervous when it first started. I’d have to go to Home Depot to get something, or go to the grocery store. You walk by someone, and everyone takes a step back. That’s not a good feeling. Nobody wants that. To have to then throw yourself into back playing hockey after not going near anyone seemed impossible to think about. There were a ton of concerns.”
Didn’t deserve better
Meanwhile, the Sabres finished 25th in the overall standings, and 13th in the East in winning percentage. That entitled them to remain sheltered in place until sometime in the relatively distant future. Let’s see – playoffs start in July, end in early September, allow some time for recovery and training camp … the Sabres may have something like a nine-month break without doing anything. Yes, the league skipped an entire season once, but this is different. The Cup finalists might have to compete for two months, take a relatively short break, and then play a close-to-full season after a short time. Who knows what will happen there?
There are going to be those who are upset about the fact that the Sabres didn’t play the same number of games as the Canadiens, and thus didn’t have the chance to win a playoff spot on the ice. The response to that is pretty simple. Twelve teams in each conference qualified for the postseason over the course of 70+ games. The Sabres weren’t good enough. They had plenty of chances to win another game or two over the course of five months. If you are on the 25th best team in the 31-team league, do you really think you deserve a chance to play for a championship? No, you don’t.
The news about the formal end of the NHL’s regular season came with a development about the Sabres’ front office situation. Team president Kim Pegula told the Associated Press that Jason Botterill would be returning as general manager for a fourth season.
I know, I know. The Sabres have been rather dreary throughout the Botterill Era, missing the playoffs each time. Changing executives or the coaches obviously throws a bone to the fans, as it shows you are at least trying to find the winning combination.
On the other hand, this probably isn’t a good time for change in the front office. There is so much uncertainty about what the upcoming months are going to look like – think about trades, free agent deadlines, draft choices, etc. – that this is not the time for on-the-job training for a general manager. Besides, the team’s financial situation isn’t the best right now (you may have heard that these are tough times in the oil/gas and entertainment businesses), and the Terry and Kim Pegula don’t need to pay someone else a salary not to work.
Still, this was all handled in a clumsy manner. The Pegulas usually don’t make themselves available for an after-the-season recap, where everyone (including the public) could get the story at once. That approach tends to put an imaginary wall between the team and its fans, which isn’t good when the fans are asked to spend a lot of money on tickets.
Then there was Kim’s quote about Botterill’s status: “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.” In a very public business, it’s usually not a good idea merely to hint at such information without giving a full explanation. Then again, there seems to be a lot of that going around these days, and not only in hockey.
Hoping for development
Botterill talked to the media on Wednesday morning about the team’s current situation. There wasn’t much news to pass along. The GM said he thinks some of the team’s bright young pieces took big steps forward in 2019-20, and he wants to surround them with more talent. While Botterill mentioned the players who have been in Rochester and who will be trying to move up to the NHL in the future, he didn’t say that the immediate future of AHL teams like Rochester is murky because the league can’t afford to play games without fans. Still, Botterill sold the future at the news conference … because, when you get right down to it, he couldn’t sell the past or present.
And the future for pro sports has never looked as cloudy as it is right now. That includes the simple day-to-day operations, such as determining when players will become free agents or when the draft will be held. It’s the big picture, though, that is quite daunting. The National Hockey League draws a fairly high percentage of its revenue from admission tickets. We can talk about social distancing and masks all we want, and they’ll help, but we’ll never get back to the good old days until a vaccine is developed and people can feel safe in crowds. That one is above our pay grade.
Therefore, we wait. We wait for more answers. We’ve waited through this pandemic, and we’ve waited through the Sabres’ entire history in hopes they’ll win a Stanley Cup. We’re good at waiting. It just doesn’t mean we’re happy about it.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)