Tonawanda News

April 15, 2014

For Sabres, more suffering is on tap

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — This is the last time I'm going to write about the Buffalo Sabres for a while. That's a good thing for several reasons.

No. 1: They suck.

No. 2: Writing about sucky teams sucks.

No. 3: Few people really want to read what someone writes about sucky teams.

If you're still with me after that, godspeed. We're off to the land of rebuilding!

First, some perspective on the tire fire of a season we just watched: This Sabres team scored the fewest goals of any in the NHL's expansion era, which dates to 1968. Think about that for a moment. We were the least offensively productive team since they expanded the league beyond the Original Six.

It is quite literally futility of historic proportions.

Now think about how much worse they would have been with even average goaltending. Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth — two of the franchise record nine netminders who dressed for games this season — both maintained save percentages well above the .900 mark, which is the benchmark for good goaltending. This despite facing more shots almost every night than the guy at the other end of the ice.

They came in last place and, realistically, it could have been much, much worse without their goaltenders bailing them out in many of their paltry 21 victories.

Sabres general manager Tim Murray and coach Ted Nolan held the semi-annual end-of-year press conference to address the season, its failures and the plan moving forward.

I have little desire to rehash the season but on the latter point, an important piece of the puzzle will fall into place Tuesday night. This column is being written in advance of Tuesday's draft lottery but the Sabres have a 25 percent chance of winning the top spot in this summer's NHL draft. If they don't win the top spot, they will draft second.

Either way they will have a chance to select one of the best young players in the world. They may well have the chance to pick two or even three of them in the first round. (The New York Islanders, who are also in Tuesday's draft lottery, must give Buffalo their first round pick either this year or next; the St. Louis Blues must surrender theirs if they reach the Western Conference finals or resign Ryan Miller after this season.)

Murray was asked how fans — who, like me, will be paying more for their season tickets next year despite the last place finish — should view next season. Murray, who's already crafted an image as a straight shooter, addressed the matter with more tact than his predecessor, Darcy Regier, who infamously said fans would be willing to undergo "a little suffering" to build a winner. 

Specifically, Murray tossed out the idea of a "five year rebuild" as too long. That's refreshing. Many fans, this one included, are starting to wonder with all the kids in the system, how long we're supposed to wait to see if they work out. 

But realistically, the Sabres are as likely as any team to find themselves in exactly this position next year. They're still going to suck. They're still going to lack the discernible upgrades in talent to make them any sort of threat to make the playoffs. Basically, we're going to have to go through this all again next year.

As Murray noted in an interview on Canadian cable channel TSN after his Buffalo press conference, this team could improve considerably and still be in last place, we're that far behind the pack.

I do feel like this team is poised to turn it around eventually. There are some quality young players in the system who will become quality NHL players. Murray has proven in past jobs to be an adept identifier of talent in the draft so one has to hope all these draft picks will further stock the cupboard. Add a few veteran free agent players into the mix to provide some leadership and help show these kids the way and our Sabres could, two or three years from now, be a contender again. At least that's the plan.

I know no one wants to say it because there's some actual hope surrounding the team's direction, but in the short term suffering is still the best way to describe what it feels like watching the Buffalo Sabres play hockey.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.