The sports world is fickle. So much that even a brain trust charged with slowly rebuilding a franchise can be held accountable earlier than expected. The Buffalo Sabres had spent the past several seasons in scorched-earth mode, picking in the top eight of the NHL draft four straight seasons. They drafted a franchise cornerstone in Jack Eichel, perceived as one of the best prospects of the decade, a borderline generational talent to rub shoulders with Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
In the end, though, the Sabres’ tremendous opportunities to construct a winning foundation worked against them when juxtaposed with other teams doing the same thing better. The Sabres got do-it-all blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen and two-way winger Sam Reinhart in consecutive drafts before the Eichel year in 2015. Their farm system graded out as no worse than the NHL’s seventh best over our past five editions of THN Future Watch. But something put GM Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma in the crosshairs earlier than one might expect: the Oilers and Maple Leafs busted out this year and made the playoffs on the backs of their tremendous young players. McDavid was picked in Eichel’s year, as was Mitch Marner. Leon Draisaitl and William Nylander went in 2014, Reinhart’s year. That’s not a knock on Buffalo’s prospects, particularly the sublimely talented Eichel, but the success of two franchise in similar spots created a “Why not us?” situation in Buffalo. Speculation on my part? Don’t be so sure. Remember what Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly told NHL.com’s Joe Yerdon late in the season, with Buffalo poised to miss the post-season a sixth straight year?
“It’s so disappointing. It’s so frustrating coming to the rink right now. Practising, there’s no purpose right now. You’re seeing other teams gearing up for the playoffs, and seeing teams, like a Toronto who’s young, too, seeing them in the spot we should be in – it’s very frustrating. I’m sick of losing. It’s getting exhausting and it’s not fun. It sucks the fun out of the game.”
O’Reilly set up that direct comparison, almost a jealousy toward a similarly situated franchise that was ahead. The guess here is Sabres owner Terry Pegula had similar feelings. He didn’t see progress. The Sabres actually regressed in the standings from 81 to 78 points this season. They did lose Eichel to a high ankle sprain for the first 21 games of the season, going 7-9-5 without him, but they went 26-28-7 once he returned, so they can’t blame 2016-17 on the injury. Under Murray they’ve become an odd mix of promising youngsters like Eichel and Ristolainen, underachievers like Reinhart and overpriced veterans like Matt Moulson, Zach Bogosian and Brian Gionta. Goaltender Robin Lehner quietly had an excellent year, but it wasn’t enough. The Sabres are lost, and Pegula thus decided he wanted a new architect. As for Bylsma, backward standings progression did not reflect well, nor did swirling rumors that Eichel gave the Sabres an ultimatum that he wouldn’t sign an extension as long as Bylsma was his coach. Eichel’s camp refuted that talk but, given the firings occurred a day later, the circumstantial evidence sure doesn’t look good.
So the Sabres need new thinkers to steer them to glory, especially when they’re missing opportunities to snatch playoff berths in hockey’s weakest division.
On the GM side, we’ll see a mix of newbie and veteran candidates bandied about. Hockey minds respected in assistant GM roles with their franchises, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Bill Guerin, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Julien BriseBois or the New Jersey Devils’ Tom Fitzgerald come to mind, as does Penguins’ associate GM Jason Botterill. Guerin, Botterill and BriseBois stand out in particular because they’ve been so successful in their player development in recent seasons, churning out unexpectedly impactful AHLers, from Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust in Pittsburgh to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat in Tampa Bay.
That said, Murray was a speculative hire coming from an assistant GM role with Ottawa, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Pegula target an established name this time. Dean Lombardi leaps off the page, recently canned by the Los Angeles Kings despite Stanley Cup victories as recently as 2012 and 2014. It’s natural to assume Brad Treliving returns to the Flames but, hey, his contract is up, and Pegula isn’t afraid to toss big chunks of money around. You never know.
What about the coaching end? A few high-profile free agents have already been snapped up, with Ken Hitchcock heading to Dallas and Gerard Gallant taking the Vegas job. But Dallas’ coaching change frees up Lindy Ruff, the Sabres’ all-time leader in wins behind the bench. Could Buffalo bring him back? Or would a Lombardi hire mean another tandem with coach Darryl Sutter?
The Sabres went star-caliber coach with their last hiring in Bylsma, so maybe they reverse the trend and go star GM with a sleeper coach pick. Watch out for Phil Housley, a former star Sabres blueliner who toils as the Nashville Predators’ associate coach. He helmed a victorious 2013 U.S. world junior squad with Sabres blueliner Jake McCabe as captain. Housley would help the Sabres’ woefully inept defense. Another candidate who makes too much sense? The Boston University Terriers’ David Quinn, who coached Eichel there. Can’t imagine Eichel would gripe about that decision.
The Sabres just became the off-season’s most interesting team, with many possible paths. Pegula must choose his new personnel carefully. He doesn’t want to waste any more prime years of Eichel, Ristolainen and O’Reilly.