Monday, August 6, 2018

Back on the road back to "Hockey Heaven" for the Buffalo Sabres?

Published by, 8-5-2018

Yeah, it was cheesy, and the timing of it probably wasn't the greatest but the concept behind the term "hockey heaven" from former team president Ted Black was solid.

This is what Black had to say at owner Terry Pegula's introductory press conference as the billionaire Sabres' fan-turned-owner promised no financial restraints on the franchise and a dedication to the lone goal of winning the Stanley Cup:

"A clarion call should go out to the league and to hockey players everywhere," Black said at that February 22, 2011 press conference, "that Buffalo is hockey heaven. If you want to come somewhere and work for the best owner in the league, which that's what you have in Buffalo here right now, then you should make some plans to come to Buffalo because this is where it's going to happen. It might not happen this year, it might not happen the next, but it's gonna happen."

Black was right in one aspect. It hasn't been "happening" on the ice in Buffalo in the seven years since Pegula took over the team. In fact it's been a disaster culminating with a another last place finish, their third in five years.

For his part, Pegula put his money where his mouth was but unfortunately for the first-time professional sports owner, money isn't the be-all, end-all. Having access to financial resources helps immensely but as we found out, hiring the right people to spend that money (and/or assets) properly is equally, if not more, important than throwing money around.

When Pegula took over the Sabres they were a mediocre team in a downtown area that represented a microcosm of an entire rustbelt region in decline. While he was pouring financial resources into the team which included everything from locker room renovations to the scouting department to lavish, ill-advised free agent contracts, he and his wife Kim began what would become a downtown revitalization centered around hockey.

The vacant lot adjacent to the arena where the Sabres played their home games was turned into a large hockey complex called Harborcenter. The building had two regulation-sized rinks, one that seats 1,800 people, an off-ice training facility, hotel, restaurant and parking garage.

The Pegula's threw their considerable financial weight behind Harborcenter and the sport with a strong commitment to USA hockey. That commitment actually began when Terry gave his alma mater, Penn State, a generous grant to start up a NCAA Division I hockey program. Harborcenter with his focus on USA related hockey is home to the Canisius Golden Griffins (D-I) and Buffalo Jr. Sabres as well as the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women's Hockey League.

The big coup for Pegula and Harborcenter, and what really put them on the map, was landing the National Hockey League Scouting Combine. Toronto hosted the event for over two decades but Harborcenter offered a facility built for hockey and the league moved the annual pre-draft event to Buffalo, on a temporary basis in 2016. It coincided with the city hosted the NHL Draft that year.

Yet despite all the wonderful hockey-related activity around what is now KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres, that success did not equate to a winning product on the ice whether it was self-inflicted or a matter of a poor product.

Pegula and Black set the franchise on a course to bottom out and rebuild with top picks but it ended up being disastrous and the road to hockey heaven eventually lead to a ditch.

It began with the teardown where GM Darcy Regier did a great job of acquiring high draft picks for veteran players before getting fired. But many were tossed around as his successor, Tim Murray, tried to speed up the rebuilding process. The Sabres did get two high draft picks in Sam Reinhart (2014, second-overall) and Jack Eichel (2015, second) out of the morass that was the tank years and they look to be core pieces for years to come, but the young vets Murray paid dearly for to surround his young talent with never meshed and none of them remain.

Jason Botterill came in as general manager in 2017 and set about fixing what his predecessor had done but the team ended up in last place once again. However, the Sabres were able to land the first-overall pick in the NHL Draft and selected what many consider a franchise defenseman bordering on generational talent, Rasmus Dahlin. That pick, along with some other core pieces such as Eichel and Botterill's first ever draft pick as GM, Casey Mittelstadt, are combining to produce a positive effect that's starting to generate interest outside of Buffalo.

Case-in-point, the decision by winger Jeff Skinner to waive his no-trade clause for Buffalo.

Botterill pulled off a remarkable trade for Skinner last week when he sent prospect Cliff Pu and three draft picks (a second, third and sixth) to the Carolina Hurricanes for the three-time 30-goal scorer. Granted Skinner's no-trade clause limited his destinations and his pending 2019 UFA status limited interest in him, but for Buffalo this is a huge get, at least for this season, as Botterill filled a position of dire need with a bona fide top-six player.

When asked by the media why he chose to waive his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo, Skinner said there were a number of variables that went into breaking down an NHL team, but right off the bat the 26 yr. old pointed to the young core the Sabres had. "I think first and foremost, the players they have, the young core, is exciting," he said. "There's a lot of good players and I'm excited to join those guys and be a piece of the puzzle."

Skinner didn't limit his praise to that young core either when he talked about doing his homework which included talking to other players about the organization. "I've heard a lot of positive things about the city," said the Markham, Ontario native, "a lot positive things about the ownership group, the management group and the fans."

This isn't the first time a quality player has waived his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo but it doesn't happen that often. And before we get all giddy about hockey heaven being right around the corner, it's best to be reminded that the Sabres landed in a ditch last season and before we can get to nirvana, they've got to get back on the road.

Having said that, the things PSE have been doing off the ice have been nothing short of impressive, but as will all NHL teams, much of it is about the product on the ice. The hires of Botterill and Sexton seem like very good ones at this point as they've been able to point this thing in the right direction, which is something that Skinner took notice of when he decided to allow a trade to Buffalo. However, much more is needed for them to get to the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup and without a Cup, there is no hockey heaven.

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