Published by hockeybuzz.com, 2-10-2017
Coming out of the All-Star break there was a strong sense that things were headed in the right direction for the Buffalo Sabres. With a good push in the month of February the team could build upon a fairly successful January and with any luck they could pull themselves directly into the mix for a playoff spot.
Buffalo was on their way to finishing the month strong and despite falling just short in a comeback bid at Dallas in the last game before the break, having won the three previous games in come-from-behind fashion in overtime meant no game was out of reach.
Even though it was a tough loss against the Stars, the Sabres went into the break with confidence. That was until they came back down to earth with a crushing 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. Buffalo slipped back to the .500 point mark with that loss and five games later they're at that mark once again. Playing .500 percentage point hockey is not the way you get back into the mix, it only keeps you where you're at--six points out of an Eastern Conference wild card berth, seven out of the Atlantic Division top-three.
Unfortunately for the club, this is where they've been pretty much all season. Injuries, inconsistencies and some questionable coaching have made for a very uneven season thus far causing fans at KeyBank Center to boo the club off the ice after the second period against the San Jose' Sharks on Tuesday.
Although they came back and won that game in overtime, again, since the All-Star break the Sabres are 2-2-1 and have failed to get on any kind of roll that would push them up the standings. As the NHL Trade Deadline draws nearer, it looks more and more as if they'll be on the outside of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year.
And there's the rub.
It would be very easy for GM Tim Murray to simply go into sell-mode and start shipping off any Sabres player in the final year of their deal for futures. Defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson along with veteran winger Brian Gionta could all bring a respectable return in the least while Murray could also entertain moving players like RFA Zemgus Girgensons or even Evander Kane who has one more year on his contract.
But there comes a point in time where a team needs to start learning how to win and it's something Murray touched upon when he was on WGR550 radio just over a week ago. "We've lost a lot over the past two (rebuild) years," he told the hosts, "and winning is hard. When you're a team coming off of [those] two seasons previously, we lost a lot of games. Learning to win is a part of the process.
"You acquire talent, and that's management's job. Learning to win is hard but once you learn to win, it's hard to lose that."
Murray has been acquiring talent for the club and he has himself a pretty strong core with some rather nice complimentary pieces. No doubt there are holes in the roster which includes forward depth and definitive needs on the back-end, and they've shown that they have the capability to not only win games, but be a force in doing so at times. Has Murray acquired enough talent enough talent to win consistently? Maybe, maybe not. It's hard to tell at this stage of the game with the way this team has been bit by the injury bug.
No one in Sabreland, especially it's core players like Jack Eichel, Ryan O'Reilly, Rasmus Ristolainen and Kyle Okposo along with Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Jake McCabe, is particularly fond of the roller-coaster they've been on this season. Murray mentioned this group of players as "guys with pedigree that somewhere along the line they've won and enjoyed winning." There just hasn't been enough of it and it has many fans ready for the Sabres to put the "For Sale" sign, which to me sounds like it's in direct contrast to the culture of winning Murray said he's trying to instill.
I get the idea of not letting players walk for nothing. We saw plenty of that during the Darcy Regier years and it frustrated the hell out of us. Conversely we saw Murray get whatever he could for whatever player he could move when he acquired a bunch of low-round picks under the premise that one of those picks could turn into something. However, that was a different time and the Sabres are a year-and-a-half removed from that.
Murray may only be able to land a second-rounder for Kulikov while Franson and Gionta may fetch nothing more than a third or fourth-rounder at best. Those are picks that will take years of development and would still have long odds of making it to the NHL and even longer odds of having any kind of impact.
With the way they've been playing, there's a good possibility that they'll be in the exact same situation come March 1 as they are now and the big question will remain, do you bail on the season and continue with a rebuild mentality while acquiring futures? Or do you stick with this group and give them the opportunity to work their way through it and let the chips fall where they may?
With the former, you're doing the obvious which is getting something instead of nothing but how does waiting until next year help build a winning culture? That would make six consecutive years outside of the playoffs for the Sabres and to me, it might be more beneficial if they give their players every opportunity to try and right this thing rather than trade for mid-lower level futures which probably will never pan out.
Murray called winning an "acquired taste" in that WGR interview and I'm of the belief that you can't acquire a winning taste if you're constantly trading away talent. A move or two might serve the overall purpose this season, but the Sabres can't afford to lose all of their UFA's this season as it may backfire and prolong the process.
If you asked any of the players, I'd hazard to guess that they'd be all-in for letting it ride and putting this season in their hands. And I'm in agreement.