Friday, August 5, 2016

Drought lessons for Buffalo from the Dead Wings-era and Jimmy Devellano

With the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres in the throes of multi-year playoff droughts the headlines have grown harsher, the criticism sharper and patience thinner with each passing season. The Bills opened training camp in suburban Rochester, NY after finishing last season out of the playoffs for the 16th consecutive season. After making it to Game-Six of the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999, the Sabres made the playoffs three times, missed three times, made it to the Eastern Conference Finals twice, missed the playoffs twice lost in the first round twice and haven't been back in the playoffs for five consecutive seasons.

Rumblings within with the media and fanbase are omnipresent growing louder or softer dependent upon how the news of the day unfolds. Buffalo sports fans take it in and take their lumps, all while watching other organizations field or ice teams that are perennial winners. Yet, what's conveniently left out when using teams like the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers,  Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins as the gold standard of modern sports success is that all struggled with severe droughts before finally making it to the top.

The Patriots went to the playoffs once in their first 17 seasons (1960-75) and had another drought of sevens years (1987-93) before beginning their long run of NFL dominance. Prior to the Chuck Noll-era of, the Steelers made the playoffs twice in their first 28 years (1944-71) which included droughts of 14 years ('48-'61) and nine years ('63-71).

The Blackhawks had a stretch where they made the playoffs once in 10 seasons from 1996-97 to 2007-08. In their lone appearance the 'Hawks were bounced in the first round. And after missing the playoffs in 1982-83 and finishing dead last in 1983-84, the Pittsburgh Penguins continued their six year playoff drought even after drafting Mario Lemieux in 1984. Of note, the Hawks and the Pens were both missing out on the playoffs during an era where 16 of 21 teams made it into the post season.

Perhaps the most glaring example of regular season ineptitude might have been the Motor City drought known as the Dead Wings-era which proceeded the Detroit Red Wings remarkable 26-year playoff run. And it might not have happened as Jimmy Delevano, the architect of "Hockeytown," was on thin ice in Detroit at the end of his first contact.

Devallano left the NY Islanders smack-dab in the middle of that dynasty to take his first general manager's job with the perennial cellar-dwelling Detroit Red Wings. From 1967-82 prior to the Illitch's buying the club and hiring Devellano, the Wings made the playoffs twice, winning only one playoff series (against the Atlanta Flames.) Once again, this an era where well over half the teams in the NHL made the playoffs.

Knowing the task at hand, "Jimmy D" began building through the draft to get them out of the malaise and set modest goals for the his first four seasons, which was the length of his first contract. They missed his first stated goal of a 10-point improvement after finishing with 57 points for the '82-'83 season, only a three point improvement. A late season collapse had left them fourth from the bottom, but they turned that negative into a positive at the 1983 NHL Draft and selected Steve Yzerman (thanks to the curious selection of Brian Lawton 1st overall by the Minnesota North Stars.)

In 1983-84 the Wings made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons after finishing 69 points. Although they lost to the Blues in the playoffs, but it was still considered a major accomplishment. They made the playoffs again in '84-85 with three less points but were crushed by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Devellano's stated goals when he first took over was to build through the draft but he augmented the with veterans along the way either through signings or via trades. He signed hardened vets in Reggie Leach, Jimmy Rutherford and Colin Campbell for name recognition more than anything in his first season then signed Brad Park the following season despite the Hall of Fame defenseman's knees being shot. He then traded for Ron Duguay, among others prior to their very strong 1983-84 season.

Jimmy D continued to add to the roster as he added  two former Toronto Maple Leafs with the signing of Dave "Tiger" Williams and the trade for Leafs legend Darryl Sittler who was playing for Philadelphia at the time.

In today's social media sports world, a few of those moves would have been chastised. Adding older players like Leach and Co. to a youth movement didn't make too much sense. Park was old and basically skating on one leg, although he thrived as a poweplay specialist. Duguay was on a top-line with Yzerman, but neither "could check their hats," according to Devallano in his book The Road To Hockeytown, while Williams, he wrote, "didn't really have any gas left in the tank."

But the move that nearly derailed the whole thing was the trade for Sittler. "I've made a fair number of trades during my career as GM," wrote Devellano, "and there are only three deals that I can truthfully say that I really wish I hadn't made--and one of them was...Darryl Sittler."

Although they made the playoffs in '84-85,  that off-season nearly cost Devallano a shot at a second contract. "I survived," he wrote, "but bringing in Darryl Sittler and Brad Park almost turned out to be disastrous for me personally."

The Wings had made the playoffs in two of Devallano's first three seasons but they plummeted to the bottom of the league in 1985-86. He was in the last year of his contract and had a team that spiraled out of control all the way to the bottom of the league. With a visibly upset owner in Mike Illitch big changes were coming and Devellano replaced head coach Nick Polano with Harry Neale to begin that season. After a dreadful start, Neale was replaced behind the bench by Park, who had no coaching experience, half-way through the season. With each coach the team got progressively worse and the media was beginning to meddle as well.

During that season the pitchforks were readied, the torches rife with kerosene and the only thing needed was a spark. But despite that season going off the tracks, Illitch stuck with Devallano, giving him a two-year extension. The Wings made it to the Conference Finals the next two years and made it to the playoffs the following year  before missing in 1989-90 the last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs. The Red Wings would add four Stanley Cups in the ensuing years.

It's a story worth telling, especially in this day and age where instant gratification is the norm and scrutiny is everywhere. Everyone has their standard which is well above where their teams are and every failure is cause for change.

As painfully stated earlier, no Buffalo sports fan has witnessed a playoff game by either of their teams in the last five seasons. The Bills haven't been to the playoffs since 1999 and the Sabres haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since 2007. Every year we hear of the droughts each team is in and every year the Bills and Sabres are scrutinized mercilessly in the press and on social media as various flags of championship standards are hoisted high above soap box pedestals.

This is not to let any GM or coach in Buffalo off the hook, nor is it a free pass for the Pegula family who own both the Sabres and the Bills. Bad moves are bad moves. Some will come to the fore early, while others simmer before reaching a boiling point, but one thing they all end up doing, especially in the throes of playoff droughts, is cloud whatever progress had been made.

In Devellano's case, the Williams, Sittler and Park moves could have left him without a contract at the end of that disasterous '85-'86 season. But he had enough pieces in place, including a Calder Cup-winning AHL club that season, and he had an executive vice president go to bat for him. Without that, there would no Hockeytown.

Bills GM Doug Whaley and Sabres GM Tim Murray are both first-time GM's who come from the personnel/scouting side of operations and both have tasted success with other organizations, especially Whaley who has two Super Bowl rings from his time in Pittsburgh with the Steelers. Like Devellano, they both started their careers in the scouting department and have a pretty good grasp of what makes good football and hockey players tick. And also like Devellano, they've made their fair share of mistakes in their first stint as GM's.

Know one knows for sure whether or not Whaley or Murray will be able to guide their respective teams to the promised land, or whether they'll get the opportunity should things go south. Whaley especially is on the hot seat in the eyes of many as he enters his fourth season as Bills GM while theP Patriots are still the juggernaut of the AFC. On the other side is Murray who was cut plenty of slack simply because of the position he walked into with a team barreling towards the bottom of the league. They have their plans and they have their goals but know one's sure if they have enough to bust through.

As a fan, would I be upset if neither team made the playoffs? Yup. But I'm not gonna sweat it too much. Off-field and off-ice antics aside, I am of the opinion that Whaley and Murray continue to build their respective teams with players who have the proper temperament to be championship-successful. There's a lot that goes into a championship run--including plenty of hardship as outlined above, good timing and a little bit of luck--but players and chemistry are key. And that includes finding the proper coach to lead them.

Perhaps some would have me setting the bar too low if either or both failed to make the playoffs this season and maybe I'd be considered an apologist in that regard. But in the grand scheme of things, if it takes one more season to finally get it right and say goodbye to the drought, I can wait another year. I don't want that and neither do any fans, but it could happen and you won't find me jumping off the Peace Bridge because of it.

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