Sabres Completely Buffaloed
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
By Max Toth
If the NHL was a boat race, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be a fast, exciting speedboat.
The Boston Bruins?
A reliable "steady as she goes" sailboat.
And the Buffalo Sabres would be the Titanic.
The Sabres are currently in the midst of a league-leading nine-year playoff drought and it seems no matter what expectations they or their fans set, Buffalo always finds a way to fall short. This season has been no different, as despite adding former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to a team that just barely missed out on a trip to last year's Stanley Cup Play-offs qualifying round, the Sabres have spent the better part of this campaign languishing in the NHL’s underbelly.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Fourteen years ago the Sabres actually won the most games in the entire NHL and in 1999 they were one famous "foot in the crease" away from forcing a game seven in the Cup Final.
So how did Buffalo go from being a respectable franchise to the NHL’s resident whipping boy?
The year is 2011. The Sabres are coming off seven straight winning seasons behind promising young players such as Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford and Tyler Ennis. It looks like Buffalo is on track to one day capture the city’s first major sports championship. All they need is a push in the right direction, and they have the perfect guy to deliver it: Terry Pegula. A billionaire real estate mogul and natural gas developer, Pegula is currently the sixth richest owner in the NHL, with an estimated net worth of $4.9 billion. His deep pockets excited Sabres fans but during his introductory press conference, Pegula issued a statement that has haunted western New York for the last decade.
"Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup."
Despite being one of the most obvious sentences in pro sports history, since one would like to assume every NHL team wants to win the Cup, it pumped up Sabres fans and ignited their hope for the future.
But through Pegula’s first 729 games as owner of the Sabres, they have the worst winning percentage in the NHL.
To be fair, it isn’t all Pegula’s fault. The young players the Sabres had hoped to build around didn’t turn out to be "all that" and even if you're willing to spend, Buffalo is never going to be a top free agent destination - especially if the team isn’t contending for the Cup. However, Sabres management has still allowed a plethora of fantastic opportunities to slip through their fingers. The Sabres really started becoming a big mess in 2013 when they fired long-time general manager Darcy Reiger and replaced him with Tim Murray. Murray started his tenure as Sabres GM by trading away captain Steve Ott and all-star goaltender Ryan Miller to the St Louis Blues, a move that irked hall of famer Pat Lafonaine so much that he resigned just months after he had been hired as team president. Fortunately for Murray, he acquired goalie Jaroslav Halak in the trade and Halak would go on to become a solid NHL puck stopper. Unfortunately for Murray, Halak wouldn't stop any of those pucks in Buffalo as he never played a single game for the Sabres and was traded soon after his arrival.
Luckily, their ‘unconventional’ team building eventually sent the Sabres to the bottom of the standings and, in turn, near the top of the 2015 NHL draft. That's when they selected Jack Eichel with the second overall pick. But instead of giving the Sabres an expected positive push, Eichel's arrival has ushered in a whole new era of disappointment.
One of the most embarrassing developments during Eichel's Buffalo career was the ill-fated Ryan O'Reilly trade. O’Reilly was a Sabres assistant captain and a hard working two-way forward. But the constant losing that comes with being a Sabre weighed heavily on him, and O’Reilly went as far as to say he had lost his love for hockey.
In the 2018 off-season, the Sabres traded the disgruntled O'Reilly to the St Louis Blues for the uninspiring trio of Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson. The Sabres also received a 2019 first round pick that ended up at the bottom of the first round because, get this; in his very first season with the Blues, O’Reilly helped lead St Louis to a Stanley Cup and took home the Conn Smythe trophy as play-offs MVP. O’Reilly now captains the Blues, and something tells me he has rediscovered his love for the game.
So where do the Sabres stand today?
Well, it would be fair to say this is the worst season of the Pegula era. Not only are the Sabres at the bottom of the NHL, but the expectations for this season were actually the highest in years. With the addition of Taylor Hall and expected improvements for players such as Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, the Sabres were hopeful their "out of the play-offs" streak would finally come to an end. However, this season has been nothing short of an absolute disaster.
Despite boasting considerable offensive talent, the Sabres biggest problem has been their goal scoring. Big money forwards like Hall and Jeff Skinner have scored a combined 3 goals in 45 games this season, meaning if the Sabres really wanted goal scoring, they could have simply re-signed Wayne Simmonds (5 goals in 12 games this year for Toronto) for $15 million less. Eichel is still a great player, but he has yet to enter the NHL’s inner circle of 5-10 truly elite players. Dahlin’s struggles haven't been as publicized as the trio of Eichel, Hall and Skinner, but he currently holds a league worst -21 plus/minus and has failed to take a step forward in his offensive game in his third season as an NHL’er.
And then there's the sad tale of Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger.
From healthy scratching Skinner despite his $9 million a year contract and the Sabres need for any sort of goal scoring; to the routine Jack Eichel injury that caused drama when the two somehow couldn’t agree how the captain got hurt; to any number of mind boggling decisions that could fill their own blog, Krueger is destined to be fired eventually which would make him the sixth head coaching casualty of Pegula's reign of error in Buffalo.
So is there any light at the end of the tunnel for the Sabres?
The long-rumoured Jack Eichel trade, for instance, would no doubt sting Buffalo fans. But it could actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the long-suffering franchise. After all, unless they really drop the ball, the Sabres would undoubtedly receive a huge haul of draft picks and prospects for Captain Jack's services. Sure, it would force the Sabres to start their rebuild all over again; but, seriously, after this much losing, what do they REALLY have to lose?
Unfortunately though, while they can fire and trade whoever they want, the Sabres can’t rid themselves of the main root of their issues: ownership. Not only have Terry Pegula and his co-owner wife Kim made some terrible personnel decisions, they’ve also created an alleged toxic work environment (firing almost the entire scouting department mere months before the 2020 draft, for example) which has also held the team back.
On the other hand, if you want to be optimistic about the Pegula’s, just look at the other team they own - the Buffalo Bills. Don't forget that the Bills were just as bad as the Sabres when the Pegula's purchased them. However, thanks to the hiring of two of the NFL’s most competent football minds in head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, the Bills have suddenly established themselves as a realistic Super Bowl contender.
In the end, it's really not that complicated
Good owners find good managers and coaches who develop good players.
But unfortunately, that rather simple formula has been buffaloing the Sabres for a very long time.