Buffalo Sabres Past Provides Blueprint For Future

As the Buffalo Sabres continue to build out their roster, we take a look back at the historic 2006-07 season, at Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, and what comparisons we can draw for the Sabres today.

It’s been almost a decade since the Sabres last made any significant run in the playoffs. In fact, with the exception of two brief appearances in 2010 and 2011 (neither time making it passed the first round), the Sabres have missed out on post-season contention in seven of the last nine years. One would have to go back to the 2006-07 season to the find the team that would eventually reach the Conference finals, a team that was remarkably gifted offensively, with a league-leading 308 goals for (20 more than any other team). At the forefront were two of the most memorable captains in recent Sabres history: #48 – Daniel Briere and #23 – Chris Drury.

If I’ve learned anything watching playoff hockey it’s that depth players are a must. Not only the players that can fill a specific role, such as taking critical, in-zone face-off’s, but players with a knack for offense as well, who can put the puck in the back of the net. In the 2006-07 season, the Sabres had six players net over 20 goals (and one more falling just shy with 19). Four of those six had over 30 goals (Briere, Drury, Pominville and Vanek), and one had over 40 (Vanek). Those are some pretty impressive goal numbers.

Briere alone had an astounding 95 points (which in those days was still only tenth in the league, 25 short of the Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner that year in Sidney Crosby). Drury popped 37 goals, and both players went on to finish the season with career bests, but perhaps of even more importance was the shared leadership the duo exemplified. Rather than the typical accoutrement of one main Captain and two Alternate’s, the Sabres coaching staff saw Briere and Drury as the two cornerstones of the team, and both were awarded with sweaters bearing the letter “C” above the crest. 113 points. President’s Trophy winners. Man, what a season.

Oct 27, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers former player Danny Briere is honored before the start of the game against the Buffalo Sabres at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The co-captains led the charge in the playoffs with a combined 28 points in 16 games, but in the end it wouldn’t be enough. The loss to the Senators in the Eastern Conference finals, maybe unknowingly at the time, marked the end of an era. Both players became free agents that summer, unable to work out contract extensions – our two top centers and captains gone – and things were never quite the same again.

(On an interesting side note, the Game 5 goal that Drury scored to force OT against the Rangers started with an offensive zone face-off against #92 – Michael Nylander, the father of the Sabres first round draft pick in 2016, Alex Nylander, who wasn’t even ten years old at the time).

Fast forward to the present and you’ll find a Sabres team steadily filling out with offensive depth. Among them, another #23 is helping to pave the way to the next great era, a player that is certainly no stranger to leadership roles, having sported both A’s and C’s at various levels, whether in the WHL or for Canada in international play. This player is Sam Reinhart, and for me, he is cut from the same mold as players like Briere and Drury.

Along with Jack Eichel, the two second overall picks are now poised to become cornerstones in their own right on a team that Tim Murray has made significant strides in giving an opportunity to win. Factor in Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis and newcomer Kyle Okposo, and suddenly the offensive firepower begins to resemble something of the previous decade. Each of these players, with the exception of Ennis, who missed the better part of last season, finished 2015-16 with 20 goals or more.

Mar 7, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Buffalo Sabres center Sam Reinhart (23) talks to center Jack Eichel (15) as they warm up before playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

But building a playoff roster takes more than a group of offensively minded talents. It takes players that believe in the group as a whole, with each one ready and willing to contribute, to give up the body, to crash the net, to be unselfish in playing the game, and maybe, beyond all that, it takes a system, a vision of how the team should play, whether hard and heavy, as typical of many Western Conference teams, or with speed and pressure, as we recently saw with the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Just as you need players with good chemistry, you need a system that’s going to work for your team, and I’m interested to see how Dan Bylsma is going to make use of all the pieces. If Tim Murray’s draft picks are any indication, speed and skill will be important elements to the equation, as more than ever it seems that players are coming younger, faster and with elite-level skill. With players like Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid, Dylan Larkin, Max Domi and so many more, the trend is toward a fast-paced, high-skill game that not everyone will be able to keep up with. In some cases, even on the Sabres roster, we can already see the effects of these changes.

Finally, the last component of a playoff bound team is leadership, which the Sabres have sorely lacked ever since the end of the 2006-07 season. The year that followed saw the captaincy passed around like a hot-potato, with a new player awarded the honor of wearing the “C” at the start of each new month. After that it passed to Craig Rivet, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott, none of whom, on a playoff caliber team, I can imagine being the first to hoist the cup. For the Sabres, it will be imperative for someone to step up and claim that leadership role, to have a player in the nature of a Jonathan Toews, a player that is truly deserving of the honor.

Ten years, and so much has happened in the life of every Buffalo Sabres fan, I’m sure, and with Canalside, HarborCenter and so much more, we can’t help but feel good things are on the horizon. Maybe not now, maybe not today… but soon. Definitely soon.