I wasn’t sure if the headline for this piece would be accurate enough. Sabres fans are ready to snap, or have snapped? If their first loss this week — 5-2 at home to the dreadful Ottawa Senators — wasn’t the breaking point this season, Thursday’s 3-1 home loss to Montreal, in which Buffalo managed just 10 shots over the last two periods, surely was.
I don’t live in the city of Buffalo, but I live close enough in Toronto that the Sabres are in the backyard. The columns are (fairly) getting more heated and the fans, well, an epic rant from someone named Duane on WGR 550’s Schopp and the Bulldog encapsulates what’s going on there:
This is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you gleefully dive head first into a rebuild you assume will turn out rosy after making a few high draft picks.
When Terry Pegula first bought the team in 2011 the message was about his dedication to winning the Stanley Cup.
“If I want to make some money, I’ll go drill a gas well,” he declared at the time. Pegula said all the right things to invigorate a fan base that day. “Starting today, there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres‘ hockey department… I’m going to make decisions based on winning the Stanley Cup and what is right for the fan base and the team.”
Of course, that didn’t go as planned. And it wasn’t long until the message was flipped to the opposite.
In 2015, after back-to-back last place finishes in their division, Buffalo had picked second overall twice in a row. At that point everyone, including the majority of the fan base, was OK with starting from scratch and building it back up again. Pegula said that stretch represented “two of the most successful seasons we’ve ever had” because it brought the Sabres Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel high in the draft.
Five years later and the Sabres are still well out of the playoffs. Unless they finish with the league’s best record the rest of the way, they’re not making it there in 2020. Edmonton has been razzed many times in the past decade for their futility, but Buffalo has the longest active playoff drought that’s about to extend to nine years. If they miss again next year — and, really, who’s betting against that now — they’ll equal the Oilers for longest playoff drought in league history.
The frustrating thing is the Sabres have the pieces that are hardest to acquire. In Eichel they have the stud young star centre, and he’s having an MVP-type of season that’ll get swept under the rug after the playoff whiff becomes official. In Rasmus Dahlin, picked first overall after another disastrous season in 2017-18, they have a superstar defenceman in the making. Both of them are performing at a level you’d expect for their ages and experience levels.
But it’s not mattering. At all. Nothing else has come together.
Ralph Krueger was a bold and strong coach hire last summer and the start he and the Sabres had teased an emergence from the depths of the league standings. In their first 13 games, Buffalo had just two regulation losses and were tied with Boston atop the Atlantic when October closed.
Since Nov. 1, the Sabres are 13-20-5, with a better points percentage than only Anaheim and Detroit. That hot start lacks any meaning now, the same way last season’s 10-game November winning streak was just a mirage.
There have been a few questionable roster decisions by the GM Jason Botterill, not least of which was the re-signing of Jeff Skinner. Had Botterill not signed him ahead of free agency last summer the GM would have received a lot of flak, but signing Skinner long-term to a $9 million cap hit with a no-move clause was not the better call.
Skinner was rewarded for a 14.9 shooting percentage season — well above his career average — and this year he’s on pace for about half as many goals with a defensive game as problematic as ever. A deadline trade was the better way out.
The Ryan O’Reilly trade was also a disaster.
And on that note, more than one player has voiced a preference to not be a part of this organization. O’Reilly famously said he had lost his love for the game of hockey with the Sabres. After Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno were traded to Minnesota in 2017, they both alluded to a negative culture. “It’s definitely nice to be here, where losing is not an option,” Ennis, now ironically, said of Minnesota.
This year two players, Zach Bogosian and Evan Rodrigues, have reportedly asked to be traded out.
As we’ve watched the epic Battle of Alberta unfold this season, it’s hard not to think about a revived Battle of the QEW. When Toronto was picking Auston Matthews first overall in 2016, the Leafs and Sabres were on a similar track. But while Toronto successfully got out of its rebuild, Buffalo is still grinding away with no obvious solution. That can’t be an easy pill to swallow either.
Today the message in Buffalo isn’t even pretending to be about Cups on the horizon. It hasn’t been that way in more than six years.
“We’re looking long term here,” Botterill said the day he introduced Krueger as his head coach. “We can understand a fan’s perspective, but it can’t impact our decisions, our vision of how our team needs to eventually look.”
There are two ways to look at that statement.
The pessimists angle would frown on the fact this team is still rebuilding nearly a decade after first starting out down this road. The optimists view would be that this is a team with a number of expiring contracts and a whole whack of summer cap space to work with and that, by playing the long game, they won’t feel obliged to make the worst mistake and throw around money in free agency in a bid to rush their way back to relevance.
We’re betting a healthy amount of Sabres fans are registered pessimists about their team right now, as they watch Eichel’s prime years wasted and Dahlin develop inside of a losing, frustrating atmosphere. Just look over some of the conversations being had on the #Sabres hashtag on Twitter.
And we can’t blame them.