Feb 25, 2014; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (30) during a stoppage in play against the Carolina Hurricanes during the first period at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Casual Fan's Guide to the 2014 Buffalo Sabres

Sabre Noise has been a resource for day to day Sabres fans for five years and in that time we’ve seen the Sabres drop from annual playoff contender to their current state as the 30th placed team in the league. In that process, the team has lost many of the hockey fans who *ahem* find it easier to keep up with the team when they’re winning. It’s easy to fling words around and say those people can wait in oblivion for bailing on the team when the going gets tough, but that is life, and casual fans are always a sign of a franchise’s success. The better the team, the more casual fans there are who add to the environment. If you’re one such fan, and you’re just browsing by because the Sabres have been in the news a lot lately, then this piece is for you.

Maybe you heard about the Ryan Miller and Steve Ott trade. Maybe you heard that Pat Lafontaine quit from his perch atop Buffalo’s roster building operations mountain after just three months. Maybe you heard about the new guy, GM Tim Murray. You have no clue who Murray is but no Buffalo resident forgets Pat Lafontaine’s name. But maybe that’s all you know. Maybe all you know is the Sabres are really bad this year and people in Buffalo still insist on talking about the team. I’ve got you covered, casual fan. Because even when things are at their most bleak, there are interesting reasons to keep up with this team. Plus, next time you hear the name Aaron Ekblad, you won’t think it’s just some up and coming actor on a vampire show.

Why are the Sabres so bad this year?

I could give you the history lesson version that dates back to July 1, 2007 (a day of infamy for Sabres fan, if there’s ever been one), or I could give you the cliff notes version: Darcy Regier happened. You ever read/watch Lord of the Rings? If you didn’t, it’s OK. I have nine hours. You brush up. In the second chronicle of the trilogy, there’s this King the heroes stumble upon who’s real sad and foggy eyed, and not really a King. He’s been bewitched by his counselor into essentially giving his enemies food and weapons at the cost of his own people. Think of that King as owner Terry Pegula, who shot into Buffalo with bags of cash and talk of creating a dynasty

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, second rate players don’t build dynasties, and in opening the franchise coffers, Pegula allowed Regier — the shady counselor as it were — to splurge on just that. Guys like Ville Leino (pictured) and Robyn Regehr came in which much aplomb and no results.

Instead of using this new freedom to attain high end talent, Regier stuck to safe deals that never really improved the current roster until the team predictably imploded over the course of the last few seasons. The Sabres are now left to go the Tanking Route, which means biding their time, accumulating high draft picks, and allowing a new regime of young players to grow together. It requires a whole lot of scouts (don’t worry, Big Bucks Pegula has about 50 on staff) and some draft lottery luck. When they can establish a new core (excuse the diehards while they cringe at the word ‘core’) the Sabres can get back in Improve on a Good Team Mode. Or so the theory goes. There is evidence that this approach doesn’t always work.

What’s still interesting then?

With a really bad team performance comes a great chance at a really good player. For those of us who have toiled and watched this team float somewhere between 7th and 11th place in the standings for years on end, it’s refreshing to see our team finally gut itself of mediocrity and embrace being awful for a while in the attempt to secure better chances to acquire top players for free via the draft. Edmonton aside, been the model of several successful organizations and now it’s going to be Buffalo’s model for the foreseeable future. With all this change and turmoil comes lots of opportunities not only for the team to improve in the coming years, but for us as writers to write long speculative posts about what might happen next. Which can only fuel the fire for your own speculation.

Is it far fetched? Perhaps, but that is the heart of sports fandom. If you’re ever curious why people care so much, try watching a group of guys struggle through a tough year and still scrape up fun wins like Buffalo’s most recent win over division juggernaut Boston Bruins. By the way, the Bruins were really, really bad for a while (and all their fans left too) then they got some good draft picks, which either turned into good players or future assets and let everything stew for a few years before they were ever good enough to make the playoffs, let alone win the Cup. The fans who stuck with that team when it was picking Phil Kessel fifth overall are probably the ones who most enjoyed that Cup win in 2011.

But in 2014, the Sabres are a wasteland?

Sorta. There’s actually a decent young talent base growing in place. In fact, some rank Buffalo as having one of the best prospect pools in the league. They’re just a couple years away from being NHL-ready, which doesn’t help much right now. As far as current Sabres go, I listed a couple guys we should keep going forward. Obviously you haven’t heard of these names much at the pro level, but it’s a good sign that help is on the way. Combine the current new guys with all the good new guys expected in the next couple years, and there is cause for future optimism, much like Sabres fans had in the post-bankruptcy years when the team built through the draft.

What about all these draft picks? And what show did you say Aaron Ekblad stars on? My 14 year old niece wants to know.

Enough with Ekblad! He is among many exceptional young players the Sabres will have the chance to draft in 2014. Ekblad, a defenseman, would likely be one of Buffalo’s top choices in a decent pool of players from 2014. The Sabres really crave young forwards, so they’d also likely have their choice of Sam Reinhart and other names you’ll forget unless the Sabres take them. Since the Sabres don’t appear to be on the rise any time soon, it’s likely they’ll also be among the teams with the best shot at junior phenom Connor McDavid in the 2015 NHL draft. The hype with McDavid is similar to that of Sidney Crosby back in 2004-05. As of now, the Sabres in prime position to have two good first round picks in the 2015 draft, as well as another two second round picks. Either way, they have four first round picks in the next two drafts and plenty of scouts to pick them. The idea isn’t just to attain any one big player (though that would be super), it’s to build flexibility with assets like draft picks, which are always valuable. It’s a patient approach, but it’s one that hasn’t really been attempted in earnest in Buffalo before.

Wait, so they’re going to suck next year, too?

Almost certainly.

Yeesh. So you watch this team with no real hope that they’ll be any good for another year or two?

It could easily be three or four years before this new talent matures to a competitive level, but yeah a year or two would be nice. The better the Sabres do between now and March 5th at loading up on tradeable assets, the better their turnaround can become. The first step in a rebuild is to realize where you are, where you need to be, and when you could reasonably get there. That means going young and building a new identity.

If the team isn’t doing it for you, just pick a few young guys you like, and watch their development, celebrate their highlights and try to see what goes wrong in their bad games. Here’s one guy who will probably be around for a while. Start there. He’s reportedly the only player who definitely won’t be traded.

If that’s tedious and you can only watch the team when they win, that’s fine. Every franchise needs a boost in fandom from being a winner. Empty seats and low merchandise sales speak more volumes than a million angry bloggers. Your dissatisfaction while likely result in a more concerted effort to build not just a good team for a year, but a consistently solid franchise that fields a winner every year. If you don’t like what you see, change the channel. It’s America (or Canada), brothers and sisters. Do what you want. And when you’re ready to come back, we’ll be here.

Is there anything else? I think I found that show with Connor McDavid.

No, you got the name wr–…ah, never mind.


Tags: Buffalo Sabres Ryan Miller Steve Ott

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