Not since 1984 has being so bad felt so good.
With their 50th regulation loss in their 81st game, the Buffalo Sabres officially ended the drama and guaranteed they would have a top-two pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, a wildly hyped draft featuring centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, widely considered by many scouts to be the most talented pairing of players in NHL draft history.
For those who doubt the veracity of “prospect hype”, here is some perspective: a prospect is a player who has the necessary tools to one day develop into a professional player. McDavid and Eichel can only vaguely be considered prospects in that either one of them, right now at this very moment, would be far and away the best center on the Buffalo Sabres.
BUF finishes last. Gives Sabres a 20 per cent chance at Connor McDavid or 100 per cent chance at Jack Eichel. Draft lottery a week tomorrow.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) April 11, 2015
On the exact day the Sabres clinched the worst record in hockey, McDavid scored five goals in his playoff matchup for his Erie Otters against OHL perennial powerhouse London Knights. The newly turned-18 wunderkind achieved this after a season where he scored 44 goals and 120 points in just 47 games, unheard of numbers in the OHL since pretty much the days of Wayne Gretzky.
McDavid is often compared to Sidney Crosby, most recently by… well, Crosby himself. Quite simply, McDavid is a generational scoring talent who should challenge for the NHL scoring title before he turns 20.
Also on the same exact day the Sabres clinched the worst NHL record, Boston University’s Jack Eichel was awarded the Hobey Baker award as the most outstanding player in the NCAA.
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) April 10, 2015
This game just after he led his Terrier team past perennial NCAA powerhouse North Dakota and into the finals match-up with a dominantly head-turning two-goal and one-assist performance. With 26 goals and 44 assists in just 39 games against mostly much-older competition, Eichel challenged Paul Kariya’s 1992-93 season at the University of Maine for the best freshman campaign in the history of collegiate hockey.
While McDavid is oft-compared to Crosby, Eichel’s complete game has drawn comparisons to Chicago Blackhawks superstar Jonathan Toews. To put that comparison to to the numerical test, in two seasons at North Dakota, Toews scored posted point totals of 39 and 46 points, for a total of 85. Meanwhile, Eichel posted 70 points, with virtually as many assists as a freshman as Toews had points as a sophomore. Eichel is also a generational all-around talent who could challenge for an NHL scoring title before he turns 20.
On February 11, Buffalo General Manager Tim Murray shook the hockey headlines with a blockbuster deal to acquire troubled but incredibly talented left wing Evander Kane from the Winnipeg Jets. In the transaction, Buffalo gave up their top defenseman in Tyler Myers and their second-line right winger, Drew Stafford. This weakened the last-place Sabres even more on the ice, giving them a better chance to guarantee McDavid or Eichel with the prerequisite worst-overall NHL record, while giving them a top-line talented left winger in Kane to pair with whichever future star they lucked (or, sucked) into in the 2015 draft.
With a guarantee of McDavid or Eichel donning a Sabres jersey next season, the future in Buffalo is more than just bright; it’s blinding.
The prodigal pair of draft-eligibles will be far from the only franchise-caliber young talents in the Sabres’ pipeline. Last season’s fourth-overall pick was another blue-chip pivot in Sam Reinhart. Another responsible two-way player with pinpoint playmaking skills and a penchant for making his teammates better, Reinhart has the potential to develop into the perfect second-line center, perhaps giving the Sabres a one-two punch up the middle to rival the days of Yzerman/Fedorov in Detroit or Sakic/Forsberg in Colorado.
Already at the NHL level, Zemgus Girgensens has enjoyed a stellar breakthrough season with his size, drive and two-way play and gives the Sabres the most promising trio of young centers in the NHL. Mikhail Grigorenko has yet to realize his tremendous physical gifts, and could be dangled in a trade for another established winger during the off-season.
This is not to say the Sabres’ cupboard is barren at the wing. While Kane should skate on the top line come opening day in October, Matt Moulson is a gritty goal-scoring veteran who should skate alongside Reinhart on the second line. On the right side, Tyler Ennis is a dynamic point producer and it is safe to assume that Tim Murray will make a deal for another veteran right winger in the offseason.
With rumors out of Chicago that star right winger Patrick Sharp will be the victim of the Blackhawks’ salary-cap crunch, it would be a great fit to have the four-time 30-goal scorer and two-time Stanley Cup champion on the top scoring unit in Buffalo. A cheaper trade option could be another two-time cup champ in Ithaca, New York native Dustin Brown, whose time in LA may be coming to a close due to the Kings’ own cap woes.
Murray has a bounty of wingers coming through the system, as well. Though most of them — notably J.T. Compeer, Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey — seem suited for second and third line roles, wrecking ball power-foward Hudson Fasching features the combination of grit, desire and skating necessary to one day develop into a first-line force on the right wing.
There is also a strong blue line foundation in Buffalo. Murray turned a pair of 2013 first-round picks into Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, both huge young men with huge upsides. Ristolainen features a bomb of a shot and the future as a weapon on the power play, while Zadorov is an absolute physical force at 6’5″ and is seen as a future shut-down defensive defenseman. Add the rock-solid Zach Bogosian to the mix (also acquired in the Kane trade), along with current top rearguard prospect Jake McCabe, and the Sabres are loaded for the future.
After the now-inevitable selection of McDavid or Eichel, the Sabres will have all the makings of a future NHL juggernaut. They still will eventually have to address their situation in goal, but the 2015-16 offseason may be the perfect opportunity to achieve this. Probably the two top young goaltending prospects currently in the NHL, John Gibson (Anaheim) and Andrei Vasilevski (Tampa Bay) could both become available, as they are blocked out of starting positions by other talented young goalies in Frederik Andersen and Ben Bishop.
Murray would be all but set at every position for the future if he could turn Grigorenko and his 31st overall pick or some similar combination into Vasilevski.
All-in-all, there is a great deal to look forward to in Buffalo. Delicious wings. That one month of summer in between eleven months of snow. And the possibility of a line up next season which resembles this (C-W-W):
Granted, it will be a young line-up which will take some lumps. The playoffs may not be a reality in 2015-16, but the amount of young talent Murray is accumulating in Buffalo will go from outstanding to simply incredible with the addition of either McDavid or Eichel. And, though, being bad feels good for Buffalo fans right now, being very goo8d for seasons to come will feel even better.