Embracing Process over Products: Back to the Future of 2006

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With the trading of Ryan Miller to the St. Louis Blues, virtually every part of the Sabres teams that took Buffalo to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2006 and 2007 – from forwards, to defense, to goaltending, to coaching, to the general manager and ownership itself – has left town. As they’ve gone one by one, fans have been split between sadness at saying goodbye and hope that turning the page can rebuild what has become a losing franchise.

No matter how much I like Ryan Miller and recognize him as the team’s MVP for years running, it perplexes me that fans who sat through this team’s 7-year descent from 1st to 30th would cling to a 34-year-old unrestricted free, or any aging player that hadn’t celebrated a playoff series victory since squeaking past the Rangers in the second round of 2007. That may sound like Bucky talking, and I can’t apologize enough for that, but did anyone think Pominville, Vanek, and Miller were about to turn this ship around? Easy answer: no. So the next step is easy too: they had to go.

Drama surrounding LaFontaine aside, I think the reason some Buffalo fans are finding it difficult to say goodbye to these guys is that the Sabres have been stuck in neutral for so long that many fans have only ever known the team as Miller and Lindy, Pommers and Vanek.  At least that’s true for my generation, many of whom weren’t fans until the 2006 season. For older fans, that team is still the best the Sabres have had since the French Connection era.

Either way, whether the memories you have of them are how you became a fan or just your favorite runs to the Eastern Conference Finals, seeing them leave can feel like giving up on bringing back that magic and accepting that it won’t happen again.

That is, unless you remember the first act of Regier and Ruff really well. And as a kid who sat in the 300s of a half-empty HSBC many times from 2002-2004 to hope that Miroslav Satan and somebody – Curtis Brown? Young JP Dumont? Anyone please, help! –  could power the Sabres to a 2-2 tie (so long as Marty Biron had a strong night), I do remember that first act well.

The Sabres finished last place in the division three years in a row from 2002-2004 (a division with the Leafs in it!). Yet during those dark days formed the core of the teams that would take Buffalo back to contending status. When the Sabres finally returned to the playoffs in 2006, they were powered mostly by players who were with the team through those miserable seasons. But it wasn’t the veterans who had made it to the ECFs in 1998 and 1999, it was the next generation waiting for them to get out of the way.

To get specific, it wasn’t players like Miroslav Satan, Stu Barnes, Alexei Zhitnik, Jason Woolley and Rob Ray who turned it around for the Sabres. It was the young players on those teams, the not-quite-ready “prospects” that impatient fans always love to hate. It was players like Maxim Afinogenov (22 in 2002), Ales Kotalik (23 in 2002), JP Dumont (23 in 2002), Tim Connolly (20 in 2002), Brian Campbell (22), Jay McKee (24), Henrik Tallinder (23), Daniel Briere (25 when he was acquired from Phoenix at the 2003 deadline in exchange for Chris Gratton).

Even though the Sabres’ attempts to trade veterans for prospects often busted during that period, cutting ties with players from the 1998 and 1999 runs created the necessary opportunity for the younger generation to build their own identity and for Lindy and his assistants to revisit their philosophy. That’s what made 2006 happen. When the hungry, young Sabres and their new pinch-heavy offense came up against the long-time contender Philadelphia Flyers in Buffalo’s first playoff series since 2001, the Flyers were flat out humiliated by a Buffalo team that embraced a changing league better than any other following the (first) lockout’s rule changes.

The permanence of figures like Ruff, Regier, Miller, and “the core” is antithetical to the process of change that made us cheer for them in the first place. Even the best organizations need an element of change to prevent stagnation and decline. You can’t claim to be building a new identity while Ryan Miller is still the face of your franchise. As long as those guys as key parts of the organization, the driving mission will always be to turn back the clock to that time it nearly all came together in 2006 and 2007. To do something new you have to become someone new.

And history – the history of the Sabres from 1998-1999 to 2006-2007 – teaches us that the new thing can be even better than the past we pine for. This is why I greet the departure of beloved players with excitement. It’s not that I don’t like them. It’s that nothing lasts forever, and by holding on to the past we lose out on a future that could be more fantastic than anything we’ve seen so far. Never forget that 2006 was a surprise.

Of course, the comparison from 2014 to 2004 isn’t perfect. The current rebuilding effort is much more deliberate, bold and comprehensive than what occurred between the Sabres’ two playoff series victories over Philadelphia in 2001 and 2006. But that only means we have an even better chance to succeed this time. Another big and better change since last time: the draft is producing a lot more NHL-ready players than it did 10-15 years ago.

We should be glad the Sabres are in Tim Murray’s hands, because he’ll have no cloudy eyes when it comes to “tradition” or how the team has operated in the past. We can still love the players and coaches from the 2006 and 2007 playoff runs, but we have to put the process that built those years ahead of its decade-old products if we want to pursue winning and not just the ghost of winning.

Saying goodbye to Lindy, Miller, Pominville, Vanek and the rest may feel like saying goodbye to the incredible ride of those 2006 and 2007 seasons. But it’s actually creating the same opportunity from a decade ago for the next generation of Sabres to win our hearts, take us back to the postseason, and give us something better than we ever dreamed possible.

When that day comes, hopefully sooner rather than later, we can skip the “I told you so’s” and go right to the party outside the First Niagara Center on that first afternoon of the playoffs. There’s no better moment in Buffalo sports, and I want us all to get there again. The Sabres are finally going in the right direction – embracing the process of change that created the 2006 Sabres instead of clutching to the players that process produced a decade ago.