Published by hockeybuzz.com, 3-21-2018
It's deja vu all over again only this time, unlike in 2015, these two teams won't be battling it out for last place to secure a top-two pick. If you don't know it by now, here's a brief recap of what it was like to be a Buffalo Sabres fan during the 2014-15 season.
The focus on tanking began back in 1983-83 when the Pittsburgh Penguins did so to select Mario Lemieux at the top of the '84 NHL Draft (see video below from TSN entitled "Playing to Lose.") The NHL instituted a lottery system for non-playoff teams in 1995 and it went through a couple different adjustments through the years. For the 2014-15 season, any non-playoff team could win the lottery but the last place team could fall no further than the second overall pick in the draft.
The 2015 NHL Draft was called the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes as McDavid represented a prospect not seen since the likes of Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. However, U.S. born prospect Jack Eichel was also in the mix and was widely seen as the "consolation prize" should the team with the worst record not win the lottery and often times when discussing the draft, the term "McEichel" was used as a way of bringing the two prominent names in the draft together.
Both the Sabres and the Arizona Coyotes seemed to be the front-runners for last place that season and in an epic battle of "tank warfare" both teams used the 2015 NHL traded deadline as a way to dump every ounce of remaining NHL/AHL talent from their team to try and secure a last place finish (read my piece on that trade deadline here.)
On March 26, 2015 the Coyotes came to Buffalo in the "Battle for the Basement." The game featured Buffalo fans decked out in their Sabres regalia cheering the visiting 'Yotes with the sparse crowd saving their loudest cheer for Arizona's Sam Gagner who won the game in overtime. Said Sabres defenseman Mike Weber about his team cheering on the opposition, ""I don't even know what to say. It's extremely frustrating for us. I've never been a part of something like that where the away team comes into a home building and [the fans] are cheering for them."
It took to the second to last game of the season for the Sabres to secure last place (with a local radio station buying the jersey of the Columbus Blue Jackets players who scored the tank-securing goal.)
Buffalo finished in last place. Arizona finished 29th and the Edmonton Oilers finished 28th. After the lottery was completed, Edmonton won the rights to select McDavid first-overall, Buffalo got the "consolation prize" in Eichel and the Coyotes picked...(bet many can't name who they picked without looking it up)...Dylan Strome.
To many the Sabres won when they lost while to others they were always losers for losing. Regardless of which side you were on, it tapped into our core being as Sabres/hockey fans and left a mental scar on all of us moving forward.
The Sabres lot in the hockey world was supposed to change after that draft, yet after a short ride to the upper portions of the bottom third, they fell backwards last season and are now exactly where they were three years ago--in last place. As for the Coyotes, they're in 29th place one point ahead of the Sabres after finishing 28th last season and in 24th, one spot behind the Sabres the prior season.
Buffalo and Arizona meet tonight and although the standings are pretty much the same, much is different when it comes to the 2018 NHL Draft.. In response to the events that happened in 2015, the NHL changed it's lottery rules so that now every non-playoff team will have a shot at the top-three picks in the draft with the last-place team possibly drafting as low as fourth-overall. And this year there is one franchise-altering player at the top of the draft (not two.)
Unlike the 2014-15 Sabres, this Buffalo team is nowhere near as bereft of talent and have actually been playing some real good hockey as of late, even in losses (see Nashville Predators game on Monday.) Instead of borderline NHL'ers and career AHL'ers occupying roster spots, this team is lead by Eichel and some upper-level players with talented youngins being put into the mix. Prior to the overtime loss to Arizona in 2015 the Sabres had one win in their prior 13 games (1-10-2) while this edition is 6-6-1 in their previous 13.
If there is a "Tank-nation" out there in Sabreland, they're subdued. Could there be some cheers from Sabres fans when (if) Arizona scores tonight? Possibly. But it will be no where near where it was nearly three years ago when Sabres fans were blatantly open about the tank job and feeling damn proud of it.
It's not most pleasant of memories, but it happened.
Reports from the rink have these lines and d-pairingsat the morning skate:
Also, it looks as if Chad Johnson will get the nod in net for Buffalo.
Eichel spoke to the media yesterday concerning the opinion of many fans who wanted him shut down for the rest of the season. The 21 yr. old suffered his second consecutive high-ankle sprain (on different ankles) and was back in the lineup on Saturday. His response, via Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times:
“It’s a pretty simple answer, to be honest with you, I’m playing because I’m a hockey player. It’s kind of ridiculous for somebody to think we’re out of the playoffs and we don’t have an opportunity to really do anything with our season that I would just pack my year in. It’s not who I am as a person, it’s not who I’ve ever been, it’s not who I am as a hockey player.
“At the end of the day, I love to play hockey. Whether we’re in first place or last place in the league, it doesn’t matter to me. I like to put my equipment on, go out there and play hockey. That’s why I’m playing. I love to play and I have a lot of fun doing it. It’s what I look most forward to in my day. There’s not really quite a feeling like it, so I enjoy it every day.
“I’m a competitor, I want to be out there competing. I want to play, so that’s why I’m playing. There should be a lot more questions asked if I decided I did want to pack it in, end my season.
“I looked at my rehab process as if I was coming back to compete to try to get to the playoffs. Obviously, that’s not the case, but I try to put myself in the best position to come back and impact this team in a positive way. That’s all part of us building a culture out there. We should all want to be out there every night. I think that that’s important.”