It’s not February yet, and the Buffalo Sabres are dead and buried for another season. ‘Twas ever thus, an excellent hockey market stocked with long suffering fans, underserviced in 2018 the way they were in ’17, ’16, ’15…
The Sabres, an Original 14 franchise that has never drank from the Stanley Cup, arrive in Edmonton for Tuesday night’s game after a 2-1 overtime win in Calgary, their first win in Cowtown since 2003. They are last in the Eastern Conference, six points behind the next best team (Ottawa).
The National Hockey League, it seems, has perfected the art of keeping a Buffalo in the basement. The Sabres will likely finish last in their Division for the fifth time in six seasons.
Owner Terry Pegula and his wife Kim, who is active in assessing employees of both the Sabres and Buffalo Bills, their other team, changed out management last summer when they installed new general manager Jason Botterill and head coach Phil Housley. Both are in their positions for the first time, which might be fine if this weren’t one of the toughest nuts to crack in the entire NHL, from a management perspective.
We spent the day Monday talking to people close to the Sabres. It’s a laundry list of issues, but hey, it’s never one or two things that digs a hole the depth of the one this franchise finds itself in.
Here’s what we unearthed:
• They say Kim Pegula does the firing. A 2016 NFL.com profile on her called Pegula “one of the most powerful women in American sports, and the de facto queen of Buffalo.” She referred to herself as “the Black Widow,” a moniker earned by her willingness to hand out a pink slip inside the Sabres or Bills organization.
Hockey people say she makes everyone nervous. Maybe they should be.
• The Sabres had 78 points last season, despite the fact Jack Eichel missed 21 games and Evander Kane didn’t score in his first dozen. So they fired GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma after the season.
This season? They’d kill for 78 points, but are on pace for 58 instead. Eichel hasn’t missed a game, and Kane is on pace for 28 goals.
• Here’s the one that is the trickiest. To the man, sources say the Sabres dressing room is not a healthy environment.
What does it mean to have “a bad room?” You never really know unless you are inside the room, and we won’t guess. But hockey isn’t basketball. It literally takes 20 guys pulling the same way, taking hits to make plays for each other, arriving at the rink in a team frame of mind, executing the coach’s game plan and putting the team’s goals ahead of your own in order to win.
The minute two guys are in it for themselves, they become four guys. Then they become seven. If management doesn’t step in to fix the problem — that’s on the head coach first — it only gets worse.
It’s a hockey cliché, we know. But if guys aren’t playing for each other, you can’t win. Period.
• Kyle Okposo signed a seven-year, $42 million free agent deal on July 1, 2016. In March of 2017 he suffered a concussion, had an issue with some medication, and ended up in intensive care.
Thankfully he came back ready to go this season, but through it all has lost at least a half a step, scouts say. Maybe, like many players who have serious injuries, he returns to form after a full season. He had better, because so far Okposo has eight goals and is minus-18 in 45 games this season. He has five years left on his contract, at $6 million per.
• Jack Eichel still looks like an exceptional player and will likely take over the captaincy in Buffalo this year, an honour wisely not bestowed on him this season. He’s locked in for eight years and $80 million starting next year, and has to be the leader here.
The risk though, is the lifting too heavy for a 21-year-old captain? He’ll need some help, and it’s Botterill’s job to weed out that room and deliver on some players who can help Eichel move this thing forward.
• Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen are two players any GM or fan base would want on their team. Size, skill, character… Put Eichel into this mix, Jake McCabe, maybe a Marco Scandella, and you should have a core of players.
Why has Zemgus Girgensons gone backwards, a 14th overall pick in 2012 with 10 goals and 23 points in his last 116 games? What happened to the No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, Sam Reinhart? He has 16 points this season, in 47 games.
If you’re going to build through the draft, you have to develop. You can’t let a player like Reinhart wilt, or the franchise sometimes goes down with him.