You’ve heard it a million times before: if you’re not a Stanley Cup contender and are stuck in the “mushy middle” of the NHL, you’re better off tanking for the first overall pick, where you could get a superstar player to push your franchise forward, than trying to restructure on the fly.
Fall for Hall. Fail for Nail. Lose for Matthews.
All in for Dahlin.
But it’s not always so easy to turn it around. For every Chicago, Los Angeles or Pittsburgh, you have a Florida or Edmonton or Colorado, whose rises have started, stopped and stalled. None of those teams are even in a playoff spot at the important American Thanksgiving benchmark.
And besides, if you flush it all away and go into full tank mode, the last-placed team has an 82 per cent chance of not landing the first overall pick.
Look no further than the Buffalo Sabres to see the negative side effects of tanking.
In 2014-15 and the lead up to Connor McDavid‘s draft, the Sabres were taking obvious steps to sink their season, which included trading two of their starting goalies, Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. They accomplished the goal of finishing last in the standings, but wound up with the second overall pick used to take Jack Eichel after the lottery handed McDavid to the Oilers.
In the two seasons since, Buffalo has improved by nearly 30 points but still well short of the playoffs.
The hardest part of getting out of a full-on, tank-up rebuild is shedding the losing culture it comes with. The Sabres haven’t fully recovered from that yet and, now on their first new post-tank head coach, there are signs the sunk season has had a more negative impact than first thought.
“It’s great to be a part of a culture that’s determined to win a Stanley Cup this season,” Tyler Ennis told Dane Mizutani of the Pioneer Press. He and Marcus Foligno were traded from Buffalo to Minnesota over the summer and are seeing the difference between a team trying to win and one trying to get out of the cycle of losing.
“You know, Buffalo has been in kind of a rebuild process, and everyone knows they’ve had quite a few losses over the last few seasons, and that’s tough on everybody. … Everyone that plays competitive sports wants to win. It’s definitely nice to be here, where losing is not an option.”
Added Foligno: “It’s been challenging for us. You have to develop better habits, and that takes a while to learn. That was the biggest difference. It’s been great to be in this winning culture, where losing is not acceptable and a lot is expected out of us.”
The Sabres’ 5-13-4 record to start this season is just going to make that development more difficult. Naturally, the pressure has fallen on the 20-year-old star in the making who now has to live up to an eight-year, $80-million deal that kicks in next season. The questions inside that market start with Jack Eichel, and came into focus when he was demoted to the third line earlier this week. He has 18 points in 22 games and averages more than three shots a game (tied for 22nd in the league), but even Eichel has talked about how sick he is of losing and that he doesn’t feel like he’s making an impact.
Buffalo is a one-line team with a struggling goaltender. Sure, injuries have played a part — Rasmus Ristolainen was the league leader in time on ice when he went down to injury — but it’s not as though the Sabres were showing signs of improvement when it took them six games to earn their first win of the season. Since the tank season they’ve added Ryan O’Reilly, Kyle Okposo, Jason Pominville and took steps to improve the defence this past summer, but the losing culture has been tough to shake.
When you read what some of the Sabres players are saying about the team’s struggles to return to relevancy, you hear echoes of the frustration that permeated and poisoned Colorado’s room when they stumbled through a historically terrible 2016-17.
“It’s obviously not very much fun to be at the rink right now and that’s never a good feeling,” Okposo told the Buffalo News’ Amy Moritz this week. “We just feel like we’re letting a lot of people down and we just have to find a way to make some changes. I think as a group we have to come together as a team and just really buy in. Otherwise it’s just going to be a miserable year.”
O’Reilly told John Vogl: “Every (loss) just gets worse and worse and worse. It’s tough looking at the standings right now. It doesn’t feel good. It’s discouraging.”
Housley added (emphasis ours): “We’re chasing games. I really liked the fight that we had till the end, but when you chase games it’s a losing recipe. I don’t feel that everybody is on the same page.”
And Jordan Nolan, who won two Cups with a Los Angeles Kings team that did pull off the rebuild successfully, told the Buffalo News: “I think we’ve got to start holding guys accountable. Start being honest with ourselves and our teammates. When we’re turning pucks over and not working hard, it kinda (gets) swept under the rug and we’ve got to, if someone does turn it over, if they don’t chip it in at the red line or blue line, we’ve got to say something.”
There’s still plenty of inevitable uncertainty and turnover in the future with this roster, as only four players are signed beyond 2020. Robin Lehner, who’s shown signs of being a No. 1 in recent seasons, now looks like a netminder too inconsistent to hold that role on a winning team. And at just 26, he comes with an injury history.
Evander Kane has been the best story out of Buffalo this season and leads the team with 12 goals and 21 points, but in a contract year, he’s an obvious trade candidate ahead of the deadline.
Another problem with the Sabres’ situation is when they opted into the 2014-15 rebuild, they weren’t really starting from a position of strength. Just three of the 10 first-round picks (back to the 2008 draft) the team made before Eichel are still in the organization. One of them, Sam Reinhart, is disappointing as a 40ish-point player and another, Zemgus Girgensons, is a third-liner with far less offensive upside. The drafting has been no better outside of the first round: just three players on the Sabres today were drafted by the team from the second round on.
The Sabres, like more than a few teams before them, are the latest example of how hard it can be to recover from tanking. You can step back from the playoffs and make trades that invest more in the future at the expense of today when the timing deems it necessary, but the key — and it should be obvious — is to make sure you have plenty of bankable young assets and picks, and that you draft well beyond just the first round.
The Sabres haven’t done any of that.
Yes, Buffalo has its stud for the future in Eichel who they sold a season for, but that’s the only bit of certainty they have in the organization and it’s far from enough to recover from a complete tear down. Already 11 points out of a playoff spot at American Thanksgiving, 2017-18 seems to be another lost season already and that’s tough for players to swallow. There’s no obvious path forward from here, beyond trusting or hoping that recent and future drafts will bear fruit.
For now, the Sabres are a reminder of how scuttling a roster to try and get a young superstar guarantees nothing.
Tank at your own peril. It’s easy to call for and never easy to do.