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.