Back in our 2014 Draft Preview, we boldly predicted that the Buffalo Sabres would win the Stanley Cup in 2020. Well, sort of. We also projected Leon Draisaitl as the fourth-best prospect in that draft, Dylan Larkin at 14, David Pastrnak (gulp) at No. 23 and Brayden Point (double gulp) at 42.
First, so sue us. Second, we had Draisaitl right where he was chosen and Larkin, Pastrnak and Point all ranked higher than they were selected. So we weren’t the only ones.
In any event, we didn’t come right out and say the Sabres would win the Stanley Cup in 2020, but we did a few months later when the story that appeared in that issue appeared on our website with the headline: ‘Why the Buffalo Sabres will be Stanley Cup champions in 2020’. It really doesn’t get much more definitive than that. And with an 8-1-1 record, which gives them the most points and the best winning percentage in the NHL, the Sabres are making us look pretty good at the moment.
Of course, based on the way they were accumulating an embarrassment of riches in their system, we predicted a couple of years back that the Winnipeg Jets would win the Stanley Cup in 2019 and we all know how that turned out. And we should also note that the Buffalo Sabres had a 10-game winning streak at one point and were first overall in the NHL on Nov. 27 last season, only to skate directly into a massive tire fire and pull a reverse St. Louis Blues. So there’s that.
But let’s not think about that right now. Let’s focus on the fact that we picked the Sabres to win the Cup this season. And while we’re conveniently forgetting things, please do not click this link that will take you back to the original story. Hey, we said a lot of stuff in that piece, talking about how GM Tim Murray would bring the Sabres back into contention with his keen eye for young talent, how the Sabres would parlay all their picks into NHL talent that would serve them well in the future and how Nikita Zadorov would figure heavily into their future success. He was, of course, part of the trade that gave the Sabres Ryan O’Reilly, who actually represented a rather significant nadir in the franchise history, both with the team’s performance when he was there and the underwhelming return they received when they traded him to the St. Louis Blues. The only vestige left of that deal on the roster is Vladimir Sobotka, who has overcome a disastrous season in 2018-19 and is providing some spadework on the roster this season. Tage Thompson is a point-a-game player for the Sabres’ AHL team and he’s only 21, so we’ll see where it goes with him.
As far as the draft is concerned, the Sabres actually don’t have a lot of volume to show for all their picks. In that 2014 draft, they picked up Sam Reinhart second, followed by Jack Eichel at No. 2 in 2015, Casey Mittelstadt at No. 8 in 2017 and Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 in 2018. The only late-round gem they mined was one that took five years to appear on the roster, seventh-round pick Victor Olofsson, who has all six of his goals and seven of his nine points on the power play.
So what we actually have here is a team that is much better than it was five years ago, for two reasons. First and most importantly, this is how it’s actually supposed to work. What we didn’t project five years ago was that the Sabres were going to continue to be terrible and that they’d use their high, high picks to take players who would be franchise cornerstones. It’s far too early to say that Eichel is actually a better player than Auston Matthews, the player taken No. 1 in the draft one year after Eichel was selected second overall, but it’s indisputable that right here and right now, Eichel is having a far bigger positive effect on his team than Matthews is on the Toronto Maple Leafs. After some stops and starts, Reinhart is finding his way as an elite player and Dahlin looks every bit the future Norris Trophy winner he was projected to be. As we said, that’s the way the reverse meritocracy of the draft is supposed to work.
Second, we did not see Ralph Krueger coming. Months after he was hired as GM of the Sabres, Murray fired Ted Nolan and replaced him with Dan Bylsma. Didn’t work. When Jason Botterill became GM of the Sabres, he fired Bylsma and replaced him with Phil Housley. Really didn’t work. The funny thing is that both hirings seemed like pretty good ideas at the time.
Botterill appears to have hit on his second selection in Krueger. Brian Burke once said the most important task for any GM is to find the right coach for his team and Botterill, who went off the board with an appointment that was questioned in a lot of circles, appears to have made the right choice.
And all of that might, just might, put the Sabres on the path to winning the Stanley Cup in 2020. (Probably not, but humor us here.) Just like we predicted.
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