Friday, May 14, 2021

Pegula's Sabres reaping what he allowed his management team to sow

Every business owner has the right to run his business the way they see fit. In sports the direct result of how it's run plays out on a yearly basis in a win/loss record and most predominantly who's left standing at the end of the playoffs. From great sports franchises like the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers under the Rooney family (six Super Bowls with only three head coaches since 1969) and the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers (11 NBA titles since 1979) under the Buss family to the struggles of the Cleveland Browns, NY Knicks, and the Buffalo Sabres, what ownership does and how they run their franchise matters.

When it comes to the Sabres, ownership had noble ideas initially but when things weren't going as planned or moving fast enough, they decided to tank in 2013-14 and, especially, in the 2014-15 season for a shot at Connor McDavid, a player that looks to be approaching a Mario Lemieux/Sidney Crosby level of play. The circular debate as to whether tanking is the best way to get the best talent most certainly will rage forever on the sandlots of social media and most will point to the Pittsburgh Penguins as a sample of success when it comes to outright tanking. They'd be correct. The '83-'84 Penguins tanked their season, drafted Lemieux and eventually won two Stanley Cups in the 90's. 

Lemieux then took a similar approach earlier this century as owner of the Penguins to save a franchise on the brink of financial ruin. From 2001 to 2004 Pittsburgh finished 26th, 29th and 30th, respectively just before the 2004-05 NHL lockout. With no season prior to the 2005 NHL Draft, the league used a weighted lottery system to determine the draft order and the Pens won the right to land Crosby. They've won three Cups since.

The word 'tank' is thrown around a lot when it comes to bad teams acquiring talent and often times it's misused to define a full rebuild. Cases are made that the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, the two most cited examples, followed the tank path to their five combined Stanley Cups from 2010 to 2015, but it doesn't really fit. Those who posit that narrative point to the drafting of future Hall of Famers like Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane as well as the Kings Drew Doughty as "fruits of a tank," yet there are major distinctions between what the Pens did for Lemieux and how those two teams were built.

While the '83-'84 Pens were openly selling their collective soul for a savior, the 'Hawks and Kings were looking to acquire talent at the top of the draft to rebuild and they were doing so in drafts where, at times, there wasn't even a consensus top overall pick. Prior to landing Toews, Chicago finished 29th in 03-'04 and then 28th in '05-'06, the year he was drafted third-overall. The following season they finished 26th but via the lottery jumped the maximum of four spots to land Patrick Kane first overall. 

The Kings finished 28th in 2006-07 and drafted fourth-overall after dropping down via the lottery and finished 29th the following season before drafting Doughty with the second pick in that 2008 NHL Draft. They were 26th-place finishers in '08-'09 and selected fifth.

One could make the case that the Toronto Maple Leafs embarked on a stealth tank to land Auston Matthews at No. 1 overall in 2016, but only two teams have lost in an overtly and defiantly proud manner in an attempt to land that savior at the top of the draft--the '83-'84 Penguins and the '14-'15 Buffalo Sabres (along with their tank-counterparts, the New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes, respectively.) It worked for Pittsburgh, not so much for the Sabres.

That said, it all starts at the top with how ownership wants their franchise to be run. The Sabres followed the Pittsburgh Penguins tank model and it didn't work and now they're on the precipice of losing Jack Eichel, "the consolation prize" in the McDavid draft, along with Sam Reinhart who was selected second-overall after a tank the prior season. They're also in the midst of an NHL record-tying 10-year playoff drought and they have their second 31st place finish in the Eichel-era.

Although there were factors other than tanking that contributed to the Sabres demise under Pegula, the stench of the tank still lingers and it's doubtful we'll ever hear apologies from owner Terry Pegula, who allowed that approach. The Penguins never apologized for their tanking, Peter Pocklington and his Edmonton Oilers never apologized for skirting the 1979 NHL Draft using a "personal services contract" with Wayne Gretzky either. And God knows the storied Montreal Canadians franchise would never admit to general manager Sam Pollock hording talent and dictating expansion draft rules to build the juggernaut that was the 70's "Flying Frenchmen." Au contraire. Pollock is considered one of the greatest GM's ever. 

That's not how they do it. At least when your plan works and you win. 

The Sabres lost with that plan and they lost in a big way. The boulder is back down at the bottom of the hill and we're not sure which players will make up the roster to start rolling it back up. We're not even sure who the coach will be next season either. What we do know is this, Sabreland does not like what's transpired over the 10 years Pegula has owned this franchise and the fans proved it when Covid-19 restrictions were eased in April to allow 10% capacity (1,900) at KeyBank Center. It had been over a year since fans were allowed to see their beloved Buffalo Sabres live and only 302 people showed up.

Pegula's on the losing end of this one and he's reaping what he's sown. The fruits of his failed approach was summed up by WGR550's Paul Hamilton on Sportsnet's Halford & Brough in the Morning. "Here [the fans] blame the Pegulas," said the longtime Sabres beat writer while talking about a woeful Sabres team owned by the same family that owns a recently successful NFL team. "It's strange because the Pegulas own both teams, so they love the Pegulas when we're talking about the Buffalo Bills and they despise the Pegulas when we talk about the Buffalo Sabres. And I mean despise. I have never in my years in Buffalo covering both teams seen a team and a franchise hated as much as the Buffalo Sabres.

"The fans despise this team. They hate this team."

But hey, it's Pegula's team and he has the right to run it how he sees fit. Even if it's off a cliff.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 Team Stats--March

You may have heard the expression "in like a lion out like a lamb" used to describe how the month of March goes weather-wise. When it came to the Buffalo Sabres place in the National Hockey League it was "in like crippled lamb out like overcooked mutton" in March.

Buffalo finished a rough month of February by being shut out 3-0 by the Philadelphia Flyers in consecutive games at home. It dropped them down to a tie for 31st in the league with only six wins on the season and if you watched them on the ice the listless, apathetic play surely was a sign that head coach Ralph Krueger had lost his team in a big way. However, it would take nine more winless games to extent their streak to 0-10-2 before Sabres management would get word to fire the head coach. 

What's worse than that brutal winless stretch and 43-19 goal differential that featured the team being shut out four times was watching Krueger's players totally diss him on-ice and having to listen to post-game interviews where he remained without answers but still tried to push an epic failure of a hockey philosophy. Much respect to the worldly man that is Ralph Krueger and a hearty good riddance to him as a head coach.

Friday, April 16, 2021

The kids are alright in Sabreland

It's taken a few weeks, but the Buffalo Sabres have gotten rid of the stench left by former head coach Ralph Krueger. The defensive, systemic load that Krueger shoveled for the entirety of his 97 games as Buffalo's bench boss has been sent to the incinerator of extreme ineptitude and has been replaced by a refreshing dose of speed and puck control with an emphasis on driving play and creating offense. 

And Sabreland couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

2021 Buffalo Sabres trade deadline possibilities--Taylor Hall and Brandon Montour

Taylor Hall is said to be ready to waive his no-trade clause, which isn't too surprising as who wouldn't want to get out of a situation in Buffalo where the Sabres have totaled six wins on the season. 

Yeah, it's been a hellaciously devastating ride for Buffalo this season, which was far worse than the .500 mark suspected here after the NHL placed the Sabres in the toughest division in hockey, but they can reboot in the off season. As long as franchise center Jack Eichel is still on board there's hope and when you add in Dylan Cozens as their No. 2 center next year, Buffalo has their one-two down the middle and they can build around them. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Where's the bottom for this Buffalo Sabres franchise?

In 1956 the New York Football Giants won the NFL Championship and for five of the next six seasons they made it to the NFL championship game only to lose. Regardless of that fact the Giants were considered a model franchise but after their 14-10 loss to the Chicago Bears in the 1963 championship game, New York went 17 consecutive seasons without making the playoffs and got progressively worse (4-23-1 in 1973 and '74 combined) before stagnating well below the .500 mark until the 80's.

Football fans largely ignored the Giants and in a pre-ESPN era where game highlights were mainly shown via local news broadcasts and in Sunday pre-game or halftime shows (think Monday Night Football with a national audience,) out of sight, out of mind. As the New York football Giants continued floundering through another lost season, just when you thought it couldn't get worse, it did. On November 19, 1978 with New York up 17-12 over the Philadelphia Eagles late in the game, the 'brain'-trust on the sideline scoffed at the thought of kneeling to run out the clock and 'boldly' decided to run a complicated play. Quarterback Joe Pisarcik's handoff to Larry Csonka was flubbed and Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards scooped up the fumble for the winning touchdown.

Why this story in a blog about the Buffalo Sabres?

It's about finding the bottom.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Time for the Buffalo Sabres to strip it down...again

It's the perpetual question in Sabreland, how many failures will we go through before this organization to finally gets it right? It gets tiring having to revisit the amount of turnover that's existed since Terry Pegula bought the Buffalo Sabres in 2011 so we'll make it as quick as possible: numerous changes in upper management including a very brief, four-month stint for a hockey operations vice president, a fourth general manager, this one with no pro hockey administrative experience and after a recent firing of their head coach, the Sabres are on their seventh bench boss who is interim status means (we suspect) an eighth one is coming soon.

Then there's figuring out the identity of the team which, seemingly, will transform again (if there ever really was a fully conceptualized one to begin with). Again, we'll try to keep it brief: two tank years followed by a focus on a western conference, heavy style, which was followed up by an eastern conference stretch-the-ice, offensive style and, most recently, a defense-will-lead-to-offense philosophical approach.

Got that?

The Covid-19 shortened 2021 hockey season may go down as the worst season in Buffalo Sabres history. This despite a small core of upper-end talent augmented by the signings a former League MVP and and aging, but still productive (until this season) Stanley Cup winner. 

It was an epic fail.

As written here, this Sabres team was not built for the rugged 2021 MassMutual East Division which was part of an NHL restructuring with coronavirus travel limitations in mind. The sad part about this team as constructed is that even if they were in their regular Atlantic Division instead of the rugged east as constructed this for this season, they'd be bottom-three at best and undoubtedly barreling towards a 10 consecutive season outside the playoffs and yet another high draft choice.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Buffalo Sabres 2020-21 Team Stats--February

If you can make it through these numbers without hurling your latest meal, God love ya for it. Rather than me harp on the play of this club in February, let's let the words of 22 yr. old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin speak after the Sabres finished the month with back-to-back shutout losses at home against the Philadelphia Flyers. A Flyers team, by the way, that came into the weekend with the eighth-worst goals-against averaged (3.25) in the NHL.

“I’m very embarrassed,” said Dahlin. “This is not acceptable. This sucks. It’s the worst.”

Out of the mouths of (relative) babes.

Rasmus Dahlin has only seen three years of the abomination that has been the Buffalo Sabres, but those words were routinely uttered in one way or another for the better part of eight years since the organization tanked for two straight seasons. A quick glance at each team stat category below shows just how bad it was at the end of the previous seven seasons...and still is after the first two months of this season:

--number of wins, no higher than 23rd in the league
--division standing, no higher than 6th
--league standing and points percentage, no higher than 23rd
--goal differential, no higher than 20th and all in the minus
--goals per game, no higher than 21st
--5v5 goals, no higher than 20th
--goals-against no higher than 15th

All of this as Sabreland was assured the "suffering" of the tank years would pave the way to "hockey heaven."