I am an obsessed hockey freakazoid. A nut. As in, can’t get enough. If I were an extra-terrestrial, I’d come from the planet Sin Bin. Of course it would be an ice-covered planet. I love the hip-check, the sound of rubber hitting iron on it’s way into the net, and playoff hockey. I respect the history of the game, and devour as much of it as my small brain will absorb. I love reading the old stories, looking at the classic photos, and wonder what it must have been like “back when…”. When it comes to this sport, my mind works endlessly, adversely, and in strange ways. So, quite often, I think outside the penalty box, and try to look at Buffalo Sabres history in a different way.
I imagine things otherwise, if we had only done this, or that, or the other. It may be fantasizing, daydreaming, or a waste of my time (and now, your time). I don’t care. It’s fun, and it keeps the game and it’s memories interesting and fresh. So, in this first edition of The ol’ Blue & Gold “what if”…, I take a look at the 1977 NHL amateur draft. For those of you with knowledge of Sabres draft history, you may know where I am going here…
…on a trip back to the disco era.
The year was 1977. The world’s first personal computer was unveiled. Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President. The rings of Uranus are discovered (insert joke here). Star Wars opens in cinemas. KISS release “Love Gun” (and Gene Simmons’ ego is further fueled).
And Buffalo Sabres scouts, and general manager Punch Imlach, make not one, but two, vital errors at the NHL amateur draft in Montreal.
The draft is no perfect science. Never has been, and never will be. It’s almost impossible to gauge what kind of career impact an 18 to 20-year old kid will have in the NHL. In any sport, really. There have been so many “sure things” that end up playing 12 games in this league, only to end up a career minor leaguer, trivia question, or back home in some Scandinavian city working at McDonalds flipping hampurilainens. Ask New York Rangers fans about Pavel Brendl, Edmonton Oilers fans about Jani Rita, or Montreal Canadiens fans about Terry Ryan. But, this isn’t about NHL busts. No, this is fantasy land.
Oh, how things could have been so different for these two franchises.
Seiling was selected by Buffalo with the 14th pick in the 1977 draft. Bossy taken one pick later by the New York Islanders. Yes, I know, how could the Sabres’ brass know that Bossy would go on to score more than 50 goals a year, every year, except his last? Guess what? I have an idea how they could have known. The man only scored 70, 84, 79 and 75 goals in his four years of junior hockey! You think that would have given them a clue?
Now, I’ll give Seiling credit where credit is due. He did manage to pop 50 goals during his last year of junior, and was a great defensive player coming out of the OHA. These skills translated to the NHL in the form of an 18 goal per-year average, and a reputation as an elite penalty killer. Ric was a solid two-way player for the Sabres for nine years, ending his career with a +/- rating of +118.
Well, that’s about all the B.S. I can stomach.
Buffalo should have picked Mike Bossy.
Had his statistics remained status quo as a Sabre, they would have ended up with one of the top 10 wingers in league history. A man who scored at a ridiculous .762 goals per game clip, which is the highest in league history. A sniper who popped 573 goals (and 1126 points) behind enemy netminders in only 752 games. A legend who showed up in the playoffs, burying 85 goals (and 160 points) in 129 games, while leading the Islanders to four straight Stanley Cup parades. Forgive me for drooling on my keyboard.
BUT, say the realists (aka the Ric Seiling fan club)…
The Sabres already had two great right wingers in Danny Gare and Rene Robert.
Correct. However, you do not pass up a chance to draft a game-breaker like Bossy. This allows you to deal from a position of strength, and possibly trade Robert or Gare, to fill a position of need. A chess game of sorts that we do not see enough of in this league. Looking at the Sabres defensemen from 1977-78, they had a couple of guys in Jerry Korab and Jocelyn Guevremont who had obvious offensive skills, but they could have used that stud point man to take them to another level. Robert was dealt anyway, a couple of years later, for John Van Boxmeer, but perhaps he could have been sent packing in the summer of ’77 for that missing piece. But, perhaps you keep all three guys. In the Sabres great seasons of the mid-seventies, Gare was a winger on the teams’ checking line. I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating: depth kills.
The Islanders had Bryan Trottier feeding Bossy all night long.
The Sabres also had one of the greatest centermen in league history, perhaps a top 20 guy, in Gilbert Perreault. “Bert” was easily in the same class as Trottier. He put up points at an eerily identical clip as “Trotts”, and would have been even better had he been able to jump off the bench and dish to a sniper like Bossy game in and game out. Trottier’s prime years on the Island were better statistically than Perreault’s best years were, but that can be attributed to one thing: Mike Bossy. Bossy’s first year was when, not coincidentally, Trottier had his first 100+ point season. Give Bert the “Boss”, and give Bert a Stanley Cup.
Bossy doesn’t guarantee the Sabres a Stanley Cup parade down Main Street.
No. Nothing guarantees any team a championship. But, things could have been so much different in downtown Buffalo. Looking at each of these teams’ rosters during 1979-80 (Buffalo) (New York), the year of the Islanders first Cup victory, I see a Sabres team with equal talent, better goaltending, superior special teams and comparable depth.
At forward, Perreault, Gare, Rick Martin, Derek Smith, Tony McKegney, Don Luce, Craig Ramsay, Rick Dudley and Andre Savard can definitely play with Trottier, John Tonelli, Clark Gillies, Anders Kallur, Bob Nystrom, Bob Bourne, Butch Goring, Wayne Merrick, Billy Harris and rookie Duane Sutter.
On defense, the Sabres’ Van Boxmeer, Jim Schoenfeld, Bill Hajt, Richie Dunn, Larry Playfair and rookies Mike Ramsey and Lindy Ruff form a nice, well rounded group which, compared against Denis Potvin, Stefan Persson, Dave Lewis, Dave Langevin, Gord Lane, Bob Lorimer and rookie Ken Morrow, are perhaps only trumped by New York having a future hall-of-famer in Potvin.
In goal, I give the edge to Buffalo’s Vezina winning tandem of Don Edwards and Bob Sauve over Billy “Hacksaw” Smith and Glenn “Chico” Resch (sorry to hear about “Doc” Emrick, Chico. Now you’ll have to yell your color commentary at some other poor announcer). Both teams employed a 60/40 philosophy with their goaltending during the regular season, and rightfully so. Edwards and Sauve combined for 47 Sabres wins and 6 shutouts. Smith and Resch were in goal for 38 Islanders victories and shut out the opposition 5 times. Goals against average is where Buffalo gets the edge, however. Edwards and Sauve were the top duo in the league, with a 2.49 GAA, compared to the Islanders’ 3.02 GAA.
The Sabres had one of the top power-plays in the league, finishing the year with a dominant 24.3% with the man advantage. Their penalty killing was equally as good, finishing at an 82.9% kill rate. New York kept up with the Sabres while up a man, posting a 23.7%, but their penalty killing was a dismal 77.6%, not very good in any era.
But the Islanders beat the Sabres in the 3rd round in 1980.
Touche. An underdog Islander team won the first three games of the series, including the first two in Buffalo, and held on for a four games to two series victory. Bob Nystrom’s goal in the 2nd overtime in game two in Buffalo essentially plunged the proverbial knife into the Sabres’ hearts. A 7-4 New york victory in game three in Nassau twisted that knife and, although the Sabres managed to make a series out of it with two straight victories, it was not to be. The Islanders dealt the death blow to Buffalo in a 5-2 game six victory.
BUT…who was a dominant force in these playoffs for New York? That’s right, my fishstick fans, a one Michael Dean Bossy. Bossy amassed 10 goals and 23 points in just 16 games, while his draft buddy Ric Seiling managed just 5 goals and 9 points in 14 games. So, reversing these roles, what happens then?
I’ll tell you what happens. The Sabres are parading their Magnum P.I. mustaches, feathered haircuts and pastel clothing, ALONG WITH THE STANLEY CUP, down Main Street in Buffalo. Bossy makes that much of a difference. He may even have helped the Sabres, as opposed to the Isles, become the first 1980′s dynasty. That’s what 573 career regular season goals and 85 career playoff goals gives you, as opposed to Ric Seiling’s 179 career regular season goals and 14 (FOUR…TEEN!) career playoff goals. It gives you this city’s first of perhaps a few championships and, not only that, a different outlook on hockey in Buffalo, New York.
Oh, and I almost forgot.
That second vital error Mr. Imlach and his merry band of scouts made in ’77? Everyone remembers Ron Areshenkoff, right? Yeah, me neither. He was the Sabres’ 2nd round pick that year…ONE PICK AHEAD OF THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS’ CHOICE, JOHN TONELLI.
I’m sitting here just shaking my head.
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