Well, thank God that’s over.
The burning Viking funeral that was the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres season finally was extinguished on Sunday night as the Sabres closed the season fittingly with another loss, giving them a record of 21-51-10, good for 52 points and the worst record by far in the league. The Sabres’ 51 losses were the most in team history. Their 21 wins matches the number of wins they had last season, which was a 48-game, lockout shortened season.
It was a disaster, a car wreck, a tire fire, a turd burger, a Papa Johns pizza – pretty much any thing that’s awful could be used to describe this Sabres’ season. A part of me loved every minute of it.
I love the Sabres, but hell, this season might have been exactly what they needed. No realistic Sabres fan had legitimate expectations that this team was going to contend for the postseason at the start of the year. No one could have expected it to be this bad, though, at least I don’t think. It was so bad that it finally finally cost Darcy Regier his job, but only after an impulse move by Terry Pegula after the world’s greatest power lunch with Pat LaFontaine. However it shook out, Regier is gone and in his place is Tim Murray and I feel like the organization is in a much better place for it, even if they kinda fell ass backwards into it.
Remember Ron Rolston? Yeah, he coached the team for 20 games at the start of the season and won a grand total of four of them, three of those wins coming in shootouts. His most memorable moment as Sabres coach was being fined in the preseason for “player selection” for putting John Scott on the ice opposite Toronto’s Phil Kessel to start a brawl following an injury to Corey Tropp and a Toronto goal. I do like the idea though of fining any coach that puts Scott in the lineup at all. That guy ended up being in the lineup for 56 games this season (never again).
On Nov. 13, Pegula finally dropped the ax and canned both Rolston and Regier, but then went into full-on Bucky Gleason/Sabres Facebook mode by creating a front office job for LaFontaine and bringing back Ted Nolan (Ted Freaking Nolan?) to coach his team. Any chance you get to steal an idea from the WGR Whiner Line, you have to do it, I guess.
Nolan came in and the team still sucked, but they were able to come away with a few wins here and there (12-14-6 record in December, January and February) with Butt Goals, blizzard postponements and zero Ville Leino goals along the way. Murray was hired by LaFontaine and immediately both talked-the-talk and walked-the-walk like a general manager that gets it. He didn’t try to put a pretty bow on the team, he admitted that changes needed to happen and moves needed to be made to best prepare the team for future seasons. He acted on those words by dealing Ryan Miller, Steve Ott, Matt Moulson and others for a boatload of picks and prospects at the trade deadline.
We still don’t really know exactly what happened, but LaFontaine resigned from his position on March 1 and went back to New York to work for the NHL in move that had everyone screaming and hockey people around the league scratching their heads, but in reality meant nothing. LaFontaine really just had a figure head position and already had accomplished what he needed to do most – hire a competent GM.
Murray continued disassembling the current roster and is prepared for the upcoming draft with at least two first round picks and perhaps another depending on what Garth Snow and the Islanders do (which is another entertaining dumpster fire to watch).
What happens next is interesting. We know of course that Nolan has been re-signed for three years and is coming back to coach the team, for better or worse. The players do seem to like him, but that’ll only get you so far. Nolan is notorious for not being an “X’s and O’s guy” but rather a motivator that gets his guys to compete and work hard, his two favorite buzz words that he repeats eight million times whenever he is interviewed.
The “work hard” and “compete” stuff is endearing, I guess, and appeals to the blue collar portion of the fan base, but at some point you’ll want two things: actual talent on the ice and a coach who knows how to properly use that talent in terms of ice time, line combinations, offensive- and defensive-zone starts, matchups and perhaps an actual gameplan or two. When they actually have good skill players, Nolan has to know how best to use them and let them do their thing. Is he capable of doing that? I don’t really know. We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m not optimistic.
What I am optimistic about is the young core of players in the system and the general manager who know oversees this roster. You will see the Sabres’ group of prospects listed at our near the top most top organizational prospects lists before the start of next season. A group of Pysyk, Ristolainen, McCabe, Zadorov, Deslauriers, Fasching and Carrier is pretty darn good to begin with, then you can add in recent first round forward picks Joel Armia, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons (already a fan favorite) along with all the draft picks soon to be made? Yeah, I can get to a pretty good place with this team right away.
Of course, for the immediate future (next season) that really doesn’t mean much. Look at this roster. Look at how bad they were this year. They were the worst team in the league record wise, but also in terms of shot differential, goal differential, Corsi For and Fenwick Close. They even set a league record for scoring futility, as their 150 goals on the season were the fewest ever in a full 82-game season since the 1967 expansion.
So yeah, there is plenty to look forward to, but holy crap is this team probably going to be bad again in 2014-15. And that’s okay. Those young guys are going to develop and might become something special and we’ll learn about what they can do next season. Meanwhile, they’ll probably lose and what does that mean? Perhaps that means the big prize – Connor McDavid.
In a few years, we might remember this season as the bitter pill we had to swallow as the first step in the turnaround towards winning hockey again. It might be the first step towards getting McDavid, hockey’s next “great one.” If not, I’ll always remember this season for the unintentional comedy. Hopefully, I’ll be joking with some friends at the Stanley Cup parade a few years from now laughing about the Mike Weber-Jamie McBain defense pairing, or Ville Leino’s goal-scoring prowess or John Scott doing anything and have a big laugh about it while watching the cup go down Delaware Avenue. Let me dream for one day.