The Buffalo Sabres finished off the month of March with an impressive 7-4 win over the Nashville Predators but perhaps they thought the season was over. As the calendar turned to April only four games remained in a season that had started bad and never got much better and they ended the season on a four-game losing streak.
By game 79 the Sabres were at the bottom of the league three points behind the Ottawa Senators and the only question remained was, who would finish last. After opening the month with a 5-2 loss at Toronto, Buffalo headed home to face the Senators in a battle for the basement. The Sabres proceeded to lose that one 4-2 and their fate was sealed. For the third time in five seasons the Buffalo Sabres would finish in last place although this one, unlike the other two, wasn't choreographed.
General Manager Jason Botterill wasn't all that happy with the results either. Throughout the season there were signs of frustration and at a Saturday matinee in February against the Los Angeles Kings he took those frustrations out on a taco bar at KeyBank Center. He was seething at the end of season presser as the mess he had on his hands was much worse than he'd anticipated.
The biggest thing for him was trying to change a losing culture. One of the leaders of his Sabres last year was center Ryan O'Reilly who confessed at locker cleanout day that he "lost his love for the game multiple times" during the season and that he felt the team was "stuck in this mindset of being OK with losing."
At his end of season presser Botterill just laid it out to the gathered media. "Right now we have a losing culture," he said. "We haven't won here and it's up to [head coach] Phil [Housley] and I to change that."
One of the biggest problems with perpetual losing is the development of younger player and Botterill used Casey Mittelstadt as an example. The 19 yr. old first round pick (2017, eighth-overall) had just signed with the Sabres out of the University of Minnesota and acquitted himself quite well in the six games he played for Buffalo. Mittelstadt scored his first NHL goal and added four assists but it was the culture around him that concerned Botterill.
"Everyone talks about NHL experience, how valuable NHL experience is," he said at the presser. "But it goes both ways. It was great that Casey Mittelstadt got his first National Hockey League goal. That's a positive experience. But, off the top of my head, I think he lost five out of six games since he was up here. There are things about NHL experience that he has to change and make sure that he doesn't fall into that trap."
That trap was an unforeseen season that somewhat rivaled the tank years. Some numbers:
NHL finish/points (League-leader/points)
--2017-18: 2.41 (31st)...(TBL, 3.54)
--2014-15: 1.87 (30th)...(TBL, 3.16)
--2013-14: 1.83 (30th)...(ANA, 3.21)
--2017-18: 3.39 (29th)...(LAK, 2.46)
--2014-15: 3.28 (29th)...(MTL, 2.24)
--2013-14: 2.96 (25th)...(LAK, 2.05)
--2017-18: -81 (31st)...(TBL, +60)
--2014-15 -113 (30th)...(NYR, +60)
--2013-14: -91 (30th)...(BOS, +84)
Yes, it was ugly, but as we saw with Mittelstadt and the series of events that lead him to signing in Buffalo, there was light at the end of the tunnel. That light got a lot brighter on April 28, 2018.
Although Botterill never came out and said who he was going to pick with the No. 1 selection of the 2018 NHL Draft, there was no doubt that Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin would be the choice.
At the end of the day, an incredibly dreadful season produced the best odds to win the lottery and after missing out on the first overall selection two times prior the Sabres got to the top. Botterill left the season with a sour taste in his mouth but by the end of the month had a lot to look forward to as his young core was getting stronger with Mittelstadt and Dahlin joining second-overall picks Jack Eichel (2015) and Sam Reinhart (2014) plus defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, eighth) as the future of the team.