Becoming Buffalo
By Ryan Dixon in Buffalo, N.Y.
Becoming Buffalo
By Ryan Dixon in Buffalo, N.Y.
A shrewd rebuild—along with the resources and determination of their owner—have transformed the perennial hard-luck Sabres into one of hockey's hottest clubs

Tim Murray is clasping a sizable take-out cup of coffee while speaking about the most precious jewel in the kingdom. There’s every chance the beverage came from a nearby Tim Hortons, where chair-backs feature the Buffalo Sabres logo and the team’s blue and yellow colours adorn donuts. It’s Wednesday morning and Murray is sitting in the last row of KeyBank Center’s lower bowl. On the ice in front of the Sabres GM, Jack Eichel and his teammates are skating through their last practice before hosting the Montreal Canadiens to start the regular season. Once routine sets in, training sessions may feature an element of drudgery. Right now, though, the Sabres look like kids gleefully executing their chores on Christmas Eve. Murray’s manner is more reserved, but his praise of Eichel is effusive. “He’s of the utmost importance,” Murray says in reference to Eichel’s role in Buffalo’s scorched-earth rebuild. “He’s a young, No. 1 centre. He’s a world-class talent.”

About 20 minutes later, Eichel lets out a scream that silences the rink. The high-ankle sprain he sustains—and the fluke nature in which it occurs, on an entirely standard power-play drill—make it easy to fall back on the belief that the Sabres are condemned to perpetually ride the long-ago-dubbed “train to nowhere” that creaks along an above-ground rail just outside their home rink. Murray’s travel plans for the franchise, however, are firm enough to withstand some turbulence. January will mark the third anniversary of his hiring in Buffalo and there’s an expectation within the team and around town that the club—which made a huge leap in the standings last year, but hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011—will very much be in the post-season chase at that point. Murray’s ground-up approach works in conjunction with a top-down tone set by owner, Terry Pegula, who, since purchasing the Sabres in 2011, has provided the organization with means, clout and stability they’ve never previously known. Just as the downtown trains increasingly carry people around a modestly revitalized Buffalo, the local hockey crew is pushing forward despite a distinct lack of good fortune and at least one lingering question mark. And should things ever break right in Western New York, the emotional release will match anything ever witnessed in the league.

Murray was named GM of the Sabres in January 2014 and signed a multi-year contract extension as the 2016–17 season began. On his watch, the team moved from last in the standings for two years running to 23rd at the end of 2015–16.

When you’re part of a complete franchise overhaul in one of the continent’s most notoriously hard-luck sports cities, it’s best to keep a good humour about things. That disposition seems to come naturally to Sabres coach, Dan Bylsma. On the morning he officially delivers the news that Eichel will be out for weeks, Bylsma is asked about the explosive debut of a traditional rival’s new star. Bylsma—who won the 2009 Stanley Cup coaching Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh—could brush aside the question. Instead, he notes there was nothing cheap about Auston Matthews’s huge opening night with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“They limited him to four goals,” Byslma says.

The line between what’s happening with the hockey teams in Toronto and Buffalo is about as direct as the Queen Elizabeth Highway that links the two cities. The Sabres are essentially one season ahead of the Leafs in terms of the grand plan, having finished 30th in 2014–15, 12 months before Toronto bottomed out. This past June, Buffalo drafted Alexander Nylander eighth overall, two years after the Leafs nabbed Alexander’s older brother, William, in the same slot. The man who coaches the Leafs, Mike Babcock, very nearly went to work for the Sabres before opting for Toronto at the 11th hour. This being Buffalo, there have been other bridesmaid moments, too. The Sabres had the best odds to win the 2015 draft lottery, but were forced to watch the furry rabbit foot that is the Edmonton Oilers skate off with Connor McDavid. While Murray had a tough time hiding his disappointment in the moment, it didn’t take long to remember that Eichel—drafted one spot behind McDavid—was a cornerstone masquerading as a consolation prize. And while Babcock ultimately passed on the opportunity to go from one Rust Belt city in Detroit to another on the shores of Lake Erie, the fact he went so far past footsie with Buffalo is an indication of how things have changed thanks to the influence of Pegula. Buffalo used to be a place you outgrew; now it’s squarely in the mix for some of the biggest names in hockey.

“Jack has a lot of room to grow, but you can tell when he gets the puck and he's making plays, he's a special player”

“Mike Babcock wants to interview here; we get a sit-down with Steven Stamkos,” says Murray, referencing the team’s attempt to woo the latter before he ultimately re-signed in Tampa Bay. “[Bylsma] had other choices and comes here; Kyle Okposo, one phone call and he can’t wait to get here.”

Indeed, it was unmistakable evidence of a new day in Buffalo when Okposo, the best free agent to make it to market this past summer, signed a seven-year, $42-million pact to put on the double swords. “What drew me here was the talent and potential for this team,” the former New York Islander said.

A number of players are responsible for creating the perception that the Sabres are a squad on the rise. Right-winger Sam Reinhart, who was Murray’s first draft selection with the club and the second overall pick from 2014, is as cerebral as they come on the ice, executing plays others simply don’t see. Ryan O’Reilly was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche the same day Eichel was drafted and nobody would argue his status as one of the game’s most dependable two-way centres. Murray inherited Rasmus Ristolainen, but clearly wants the six-foot-four right-shot defenceman in the fold long-term, having inked him to a six-year, $32.4-million deal one day before the season started.

Ristolainen, drafted by Buffalo eighth overall in 2013, was the first Sabres defenceman to score a hat trick (in December 2015, against the Flames), since Phil Housley in the 1987–88 season. He finished last season with 41 points.
“Evander has got into some trouble here. Will he learn from that? I think he will, but that's up to him.”

Teams with a real future, though, have an unmistakable centrepiece. That was the case on Long Island, where Okposo witnessed John Tavares blossom from a highly touted teenager to a Hart Trophy contender. It’s a transition he believes Eichel can make, too.

“He asked me about Johnny a little bit,” Okposo says. “Jack definitely has that in him. He’s got a lot of room to grow, but you can tell when he gets the puck and he’s making plays, he’s a special player.”

While there’s a sure-thing feel around Eichel, the same can’t be said for every skilled player in Buffalo’s lineup. About one year into his tenure, Murray pulled the trigger on a huge deal with the Winnipeg Jets to get big, fast and strong left-winger Evander Kane. The controversy surrounding Kane in Manitoba seemed like it could be parsed a few different ways, leaving open the possibility that the Sabres had just landed a key figure for the future. This off-season, though, Kane was charged with five non-criminal charges of disorderly conduct and misdemeanour criminal trespass following an incident at a Buffalo bar involving a bouncer and some female patrons. Suffice it to say, that’s not the behaviour Murray and Co. want to see from the 25-year-old.

“Evander has got into some trouble here,” Murray says. “Will he learn from that? I think he will, but that’s up to him. He came in here with a long, long rope and that rope has gotten shorter and shorter. He can make that rope longer again.”

In terms of proving himself on the ice, Kane’s first chance of the season comes while Buffalo is short-handed and trailing Montreal 1–0 in the opening period of the game. He streaks right down main street, but his high shot is thwarted by the stick hand of goalie Al Montoya. Then, in the second period, Kane collides with Montreal defenceman Alexei Emelin and crashes into the boards. It’s clear from the moment Kane goes down this isn’t a “shake it off” situation. He is helped off the ice and a subsequent trip to the hospital reveals cracked ribs that will keep him out of the lineup for weeks.

Kane’s departure has the Sabres’ injury situation bordering on absurd, as Okposo and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov—acquired in an off-season trade with the Florida Panthers to solidify the blueline—also miss the game against Montreal with ailments less severe than those of Kane and Eichel. Last season, Robin Lehner’s Sabres debut was spoiled by another high-ankle sprain that put the goalie on the shelf for an extended stretch. One year later, Lehner appears a little weak on a goal by Brendan Gallagher that opens the scoring. After that, though, he makes a couple big-time saves, denying a close-range one-timer from Artturi Lehkonen, then coming up with a huge right pad stretch on a two-on-one play that, had the Canadiens’ Alex Galchenyuk converted, would have made the game 3–0 in the middle frame.

Murray, who was with the Senators’ front office when Ottawa drafted Lehner, had a clear idea what he was getting when he traded for the six-foot-four Swede at the 2015 NHL draft.

“We see lots of big goalies that are athletic that just don’t get it done,” Murray says. “I like his drive, his competitiveness, his fire. But I like the way he can stop the puck.”

Lehner missed most of last season due to injury. He started 21 games for Buffalo in 2015–16, putting up a .924 sv% and 2.47 GAA.

Lehner’s ability to do that at a few key times against the Canadiens means the Sabres are still in a position to strike entering the third period. Just 35 seconds into the frame, Reinhart finds Matt Moulson with a wonderful power-play pass from behind the net. The set-up speaks to the soft hands on Reinhart and sets the building ablaze. There are a lot of lively rinks across the NHL and when the Sabres are soaring, KeyBank Center doesn’t take a backseat to any of them.

“It’s hard-working people who come out and have a good time at our games and that makes for a fun atmosphere,” says defenceman Cody Franson.

The positive vibes, however, are short-lived on a night when the visiting Habs pull away for a 4–1 win. In the waning minutes, the stands become as depleted as the banged-up Sabres roster. Support for the team is strong, though more and more, they’re asking something in return. It’s the price of doing business in a passionate market.

“When you don’t do so well, you hear about it,” says Murray, who signed a multi-year extension with the Sabres just hours before the season kicked off. “But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If you’re going to take accolades for doing something well, you should be able to take a little bit of shit for the things you haven’t done so well. It keeps you honest and it keeps you excited every day when you come to work.”

Sounds like an attitude that could lead somewhere great.

Photo Credits

Chris O'Meara/AP
Gary Wiepert/AP
Kelvin Kuo/AP
Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP