Dynasties like the 1980’s Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders are a thing of the past. The Islanders won the Stanley Cup in four straight years before the Oilers won five in seven years, so the 80’s were not a fun time for non-Albertans/Long Islanders.
That was before the salary cap era, when team owners with money to spend would open their wallets and grant their general managers permission to sign or trade for just about anyone and everyone they desired. Since 2004 though, organizations have had to operate under a system that worked to prevent such practices and make teams more competitive.
That’s why teams in the last ten years that have been perennial contenders are serving as the first real-life models for general managers to build their franchises after. The current “Big Four” – the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins – have all been structured in unique and creative ways by their respective general managers. And they are constantly referred to by GMs of rebuilding teams starting fresh.
Are The Sabres Actually Tanking?
The answer to this question is yes and no. Despite all the talk of the Sabres “tanking” for Connor McDavid, no general manager or head coach would ever come right out and say that they are intentionally losing games. Buffalo GM Tim Murray has always denied inquiries alluding to such a method of managing his team, for that would require his players to put in zero effort and essentially give up.
That’s not something players in the NHL are willing to do, for they are expected to give 100% at all times, and any less than that would ruin a player’s reputation and be a clear indication of a lack integrity.
Instead, Murray put together a team that simply cannot compete with most top teams – actually, they can’t compete with most teams in general. With all due respect to the player in question, a team whose top center is Tyler Ennis simply cannot be expected to secure a playoff spot.
Murray had a decision to make: he could either mortgage the future and improve the team short-term via trades, or take a patient approach and let his top prospects develop in junior and minor league hockey. The latter option is sure to result in a dismal season, but that’s not exactly a bad thing for the Sabres. McDavid is likely awaiting the team with the worst record, so this rebuild has come just in time for the generational talent.
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) March 20, 2015
The only thing standing in the way of finishing dead-last is head coach Ted Nolan, who is bent on winning however many games he possibly can between now and the final game of the season. On any other team, Nolan would be heralded a miracle-worker for leading such a lackluster group of players through such a bad season in which they have defeated unlikely opponents and remained somewhat competitive (despite what the standings may suggest).
But Murray has a different vision than Nolan, who is trying to salvage his coaching career by winning games. Sabres fans everywhere would resent Nolan forever should they finish above 30th place at season’s end, but he probably won’t be around for much longer anyway – he’s basically an interim coach until the Sabres get a little more competitive and have a clearer idea of what their future entails.
Following The Pittsburgh Model
In an eerily parallel situation, the Sabres seem to be following in the footsteps of the Pittsburgh Penguins exactly ten years since that organization’s rebuild began. In 2004, the Penguins finished last in the league standings, but lost their first overall pick to Washington in the draft lottery.
They drafted eventual second-line center Evgeni Malkin second overall, after much debate as to whether he or Alexander Ovechkin should be picked first. Both were thought to be capable of leading a team in the NHL, but no one knew which should be chosen at No. 1.
Fast-forward ten years, Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart were in much the same situation. The Sabres finished dead-last in league standings, but Florida won the draft lottery and secured the first overall pick. Even when Dale Tallon and co. went up to the podium at the 2014 NHL Draft, it was still wide open as to who he would be picking as there was never a consensus number one talent in the draft. He would select Ekblad before Tim Murray would go up second to select Reinhart, a center.
But there is one more part of the Pittsburgh model that Murray must address if he is to go through with it all the way – drafting a generational talent. The last one to come around was Sidney Crosby (though some may argue that John Tavares was generational), and there hasn’t been a better prospect than Connor McDavid since the Cole Harbour native was selected first overall at the 2005 NHL Draft.
Again, ten years later, the Sabres have the chance to draft a generational player (if they retain the first pick) and have one of the deepest center cores in the league with McDavid and Reinhart.
McDavid ends his final OHL season with a 2.55 PPG. Crosby had 2.7 PPG in his final season of junior. Lindros was 2.61 in best year
— Corey Johnson (@cjohnson202) March 22, 2015
Center depth was really what made the Penguins so successful, and having three high-quality centers as opposed to just the two stars at the top got them so far in the playoffs so early. The Penguins had Jordan Staal, a two-way center with excellent penalty-killing skills, just as the Sabres have Zemgus Girgensons who plays much the same role.
The one thing the Sabres lack, though, is a dynamic stud defender like Kris Letang. They drafted future top-four defensemen Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen, as well as acquiring Zach Bogosian ahead of this year’s trade deadline. He also has Jake McCabe and Mark Pysyk in the system, both of which have the potential to be boom or bust. But depending on whether Reinhart makes the team next season and if their pick from this year (McDavid or Jack Eichel) can make a big impact, they might be selecting high again next year, and right at the top of the 2016 NHL Draft are two future top defensemen, Jakob Chychrun and Sean Day.
Integrating Youth With Veteran Presence
When Murray set out to rebuild the Sabres, he knew he couldn’t just gut the team and let a bunch of teenagers go out on the ice and try to figure it out themselves. So this past offseason, he acquired Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges to serve as the interim leadership group after leaders like Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Steve Ott and Ryan Miller were all traded away in the interest of the organization’s long-term future.
Throwing a bunch of young guys on the ice together would be irresponsible of the general manager, but most of all, he wants to prevent his team from becoming the next Edmonton Oilers. So the veteran presence on his team is providing mentorship for his young players to lean on while they learn to adapt in the NHL.
In the immediate future, the focus will be on the draft. This is perhaps the most important draft for the Sabres in franchise history, should they retain the first overall pick at the draft lottery. McDavid is the prize they are waiting for, and as previously mentioned, possibly even a top defender like Chychrun or Day at next year’s draft. But for next season, it will be about getting their top pick from this year as well as Sam Reinhart to the NHL, and furthering the development of prospects like Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey as they begin their AHL careers.
At 16 years old Jakob Chychrun probably runs a PP better than any D in the league. That's saying a lot, and It created Sarnia's 1st 2 goals
— Ryan Yessie (@RyanHPscout) February 21, 2015
Hudson Fasching and J.T. Compher will continue their college careers, while the Sabres will look to get Johan Larsson and Mikhail Grigorenko into bigger roles in the NHL. And the final step will be finding a goaltender who can lead the Sabres to success in the future. Matt Hackett is already in the system, but they may need to look elsewhere for their future number one guy.
Options include Boston University goaltender Matt O’Connor, who the Sabres are thought to be very interested in (via free agent signing), as well as potential trades for top goalie prospects Malcolm Subban or Zachary Fucale (who are each playing behind top NHL goalies at the moment).
The future is perhaps brightest for the Sabres of all four teams in this series – especially if they end up drafting McDavid come June.
Check out the first entry in the NHL future dynasty series which covered the Arizona Coyotes.