Cup Half Full: An optimistic view of the Sabres season

You have every reason to be angry.

In fact, you should be angry. You should be downright fuming at the Buffalo Sabres after the year they gave you.

The season was a loss. A waste. An embarrassing travesty.

The Sabres spent $65,360,369 on payroll — the fourth largest in the NHL — and missed out on the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.

How could they get our hopes up so high, only to fall flat on their faces on countless occasions throughout that sorry excuse of a hockey season? Surely they’ll just use their run from February to April to falsely justify the discontent hovering around the entire Blue and Gold fan base.

If you follow me on Twitter, you were probably one of the multiple followers bashing me for my alleged “happiness” for the Sabres missing out on the playoffs. “You’re not a real Sabres fan,” I heard. Excuse me for not burying my head underneath my arms to mourn the inevitable shortcomings of a bad hockey team.

The truth is, I came to terms with the Sabres’ poor quality long before they went on this miraculous run — before the inevitable sputter that came just in time to drop the Buffalo fan base on their head once again.

It’s why I found it easy to sit back and simply enjoy “the run” for the second straight season. I wrote the Sabres off in January when it was more than apparent they wouldn’t be competing for a Stanley Cup anytime soon. Would the Sabres really benefit anymore from making the playoffs and promptly exiting at the feet of the far-superior Rangers, Bruins or Penguins than they would falling short, I thought? It was irrelevant to me.

It’s why I didn’t understand the overreaction from the fan base following their eliminating loss to the Flyers. I still don’t.

It was fun watching the team make their run. It was entirely unexpected. For all intents and purposes, we were treated to bonus hockey. March was the overtime to January’s 5-2 second period and February’s come-from-behind-to-tie-the-game-with-seconds-remaining third period. For the way the Sabres played hockey in November, December and January, we had no business playing meaningful games in March. Yet they were played, and we watched them.

While writing this piece, I’ve realized what a daunting task it really is to find the positives in the mostly gloomy Sabres’ season. I could write a book on the negatives (Joe essentially did right here) — it’s the easy argument to make.

To me, everything is not dark and grey. The Sabres’ future is not bleak. I’ve been looking forward to the offseason for months now, and you should, too. Eventually, we’ll get to the five reasons that explain my bizarre way of thinking, as surely I’m in the minority here. But first, allow me to provide you with a little insight into my madness.

I’m a gigantic pack rat. So, naturally, I tend to hold on to things far longer than I should, fearing that one day I will regret having gotten rid of them due to the off chance a day may come where I will be in dire need of that object. I’m unsure as to why I do this, other than that said fear.

I think this is how I feel about Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff, which is probably how I’ve managed to remain optimistic about the organization’s immediate future under their control (Ironically, this has been the same criticism on Regier when it comes to trading his own players).

Look, I hear the “they’ve been around for 15 years and we haven’t won a damn thing!” argument. It’s probably a valid one. It sucks having to endure 40 plus seasons without winning. Waiting is the last thing we all want to do. But patience is a virtue and, like Veruca Salt, the “I want it now!” cries only leave you in a garbage shoot tumbling down to the incinerator.

The truth is, we were spoiled, fellow Sabre fans. Mr. Pegula came in with his big wallet and said “I’m going to buy you a pony.” Only, he didn’t stop there. After that, he bought us a car straight out of the factory at age 16 and proceeded to pay for our college tuition at Stanford, all while taking out a loan to purchase us a house to live in after graduation.

Along with that pampering came an obscene amount of faith and trust in the players and the organization. Much like a spoiled daughter having to enter the real world following years of excessive nurturing from Mommy and Daddy, we entered the year untested as fans, naive to the inevitable hardships the unforgiving world otherwise known as the NHL regular season would bring us.

In many ways, the players on the Sabres roster entered the season with this mindset, too. In hindsight, it’s silly how ignorant we all were, really.

Right now, I’m not looking at the big picture. As far as I’m concerned, the only portion of Ruff and Regier’s 15-year tenure that matters is the 14 months they’ve spent with Terry Pegula signing their paychecks. And, one dreadful season aside, that tenure has been relatively encouraging (before you react, read my reasons below). Because of that, I proceed into the summer cautiously optimistic about what the future holds for the Sabres.

Without further adieu, here are five reasons why you should be cautiously optimistic about their future, too (as a Bills fan, I am relatively unfamiliar with optimistic posts like these, so bear with me. I decided to use all my optimism up during hockey season this year as, inevitably, I will become a pessimistic prick once the Bills take the field in September). Enjoy.

Disclaimer: I will end every headline of reasons Nos. 1-5 with an obnoxious exclamation point because, today, I am a cheerleader. And that is what cheerleaders do.

5. We have draft picks, and lots of them. (Good ones, too!)

The Sabres currently hold five of the top 73 draft picks in June’s NHL Entry Draft. They have four in the first two rounds, including two first-rounders thanks to Regier’s genius (or blind luck, depending on how you see it). 

You’ll say “yeah, well it typically takes three or four years before an NHL prospect even scratches the surface of the pro level, so what’s the point?” Well, the truth is that the Sabres ARE NOT ready to compete right now. Either major altercations are needed this offseason to make the Sabres a contender next season or it will be three or four years before they’re in another position to win, anyway.

Regardless, that’s not the point. The point is that if Darcy is smart and would like to keep his job throughout next season, he won’t simply utilize the picks and draft a whole slew of prospects. Rather, he should, and likely will, use the picks as tools to his advantage in the trade market.

Now, whether he utilizes those picks to trade for a more valuable choice by moving up in the draft or in a package to entice a rebuilding team(s) to part with that established star or two this team is in dire need of remains to be seen. What we do know, though, is Regier possess the means (both in picks and monetary incentive) to again be the busiest GM in the league this summer.

The question now is can Regier show Sabres fans he knows how to use those means wisely? The outcome will ultimately decide whether or not his 15-year run as GM of the Sabres continues. I see no reason as of right now that suggests he can’t.

Remember when you were all yelling and screaming when Regier seemingly wasn’t going to do a thing on deadline day only to see him surprise everyone with two 2:57 p.m. deals — each by far the biggest of the day. This time, it wasn’t Brad Boyes or Dominic Moore. Regier made smart decisions with intelligent foresight. Maybe, just maybe, Regier has figured things out. Although I will gladly concede my argument and agree he should be fired if this summer’s moves don’t pan out, unlike most, I’m willing to wait another year on that notion to find out, which leads to my point that …

4. … We have Cody Hodgson!

Which is a hell of a lot better than having Zack Kassian, for multiple reasons. Although I am adamantly opposed to judging a trade involving young prospects months, even years, from its onset, I’m willing to give the Sabres the slight upper hand on this deal so far.

I haven’t watched many, but in the few Canucks games I have seen, Kassian has looked downright terrible; a mere mortal sliver of the “legend” he once was here in Buffalo. Although seemingly very talented and filled with potential, Kassian was always far too inconsistent for the taste of Sabres fans. He would’ve gotten eaten alive here in Buffalo. In that sense, he is exactly the type of player the Sabres no longer need.

Hodgson, on the other hand, is everything the Sabres do need and, more importantly, likely renders Derek Roy even more expendable than he already was. If Hodgson pans out (which, admitedly, is still a fairly large “if”), the Sabres will possess that No. 1 center championship teams can build around. He struggled a bit during his time in Buffalo so far, but he also showed why most people who know anything about hockey rave about the kid.

If Tyler Ennis (more on him in a bit) can sustain his success at the center position, the Sabres are a Luke Adam and/or free agent signing away from featuring four solid players down the center of their lineup, which has proven to be the foundation of any solid hockey team. From there, the holes are very easy to fill. So easy, even Darcy can do it. With Hodson …

3. … And Marcus Foligno, Brayden McNabb and Tyler Ennis!

… the Sabres have a good, solid core to replace the rotting one Buffalo has grown so tired of. Toss in Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and (likely) Ryan Miller (unless Sabres fans have something to say about it), and the Sabres have the makings of a team they can win with, which is the whole point of this game, right?

I’m somewhat skeptical about making this argument, as it’s one that has been made far too many times in the past to hold much weight any longer, but I have a different feeling about this one in particular.

Listen, I know. We hear this every season. In 2005-06, it was “we have Vanek, Pominville and Roy.” Then we had Stafford … MacArthur … Gerbe, and so on. It’s a tired excuse we all use year after year to cope with the shortcomings of the players the Sabres are supposedly counting on to hoist the Cup in Buffalo one day. Frankly, it sucks. But like I said, there’s something about Foligno’s drive and McNabb’s body checks and Ennis’ vision that makes me think Regier may finally be onto something.

Now, will this core alone win in Buffalo? Likely not. The Sabres are still in dire need of that go-to, goal-scoring star (dare I say Zack Parise?) they have lacked since Drury and Briere. There will be avenues to explore as the Sabres search for that player going forward. As for right now, though, I like where the Sabres stand when it comes to up-and-coming talent. These opportunities for improvement can all be made possible by a certain billionaire. By the way, in case you haven’t noticed …

2. … Terry Pegula is still the owner!

Remember last February when he bought the team? He was the city’s savior; the messiah of Buffalo sports. Now, certain writers at The Buffalo News poke fun at him every opportunity they get. Some fans have even begun to turn on the same man who wept at the news conference upon his purchase of the Sabres and has put as much care and effort into this region as anyone has in years, blaming him for a single season in which the team failed so miserably to meet expectations.

I just don’t understand how people are anointing the first 14 months of Pegula’s ownership a “failure.” Obviously, it hasn’t been a success. But this stuff doesn’t happen overnight, folks. It takes time to build a team that can seriously contend for a Stanley Cup. Most of the time, it takes years of futility before a team even scratches the surface of relevancy again (See: Penguins, Pittsburgh).

Not everyone can be the Detroit Red Wings. In fact, no one is. There probably won’t ever be another organization in pro sports as flawless as the Wings have been over the past two decades. My point is, it’s unreasonable to expect Pegula and Ted Black to jump in and instantly transform the Buffalo Sabres organization into a proverbial winning machine. The organization was a mess prior to the Pegula era. You’ll say at least they made the playoffs back then, but seriously? Give the man a little time.

If you believe the Sabres were a piece or two away from being a contender at this point last year (I fall under this category, as do most Sabres fans), then you were catastrophically wrong.

Although it’s becoming more and more apparent the Sabres will never win very much with the current “core” of players, it’s obvious to me that Pegula and Black didn’t buy the Sabres without a plan. They know the direction they want to take the team.

I have a good amount of belief in that plan, which is something most Sabres fans have been blinded from by the underachieving season. They haven’t given us any reasons to doubt them so far. And, frankly, after a season like that …

1. … How much worse can it get?!

Okay so, in theory, it could still get a little worse. But not by much. You can’t get any worse than 15th place, which is in fact a position the Sabres occupied this season. We were rendered fools by the Bruins and consistently embarassed by the worst teams in the NHL.

Coming into this season, we all had mile-high expectations for the Sabres. Maybe now we’ve all learned our lesson. We should’ve known, really.

Throwing money at a problem NEVER solves it. Ever.

But contrary to what many people seem to be echoing, two of the three big-money moves Pegula authorized in his first offseason as owner played huge roles on this team.

Although he didn’t finish the season this way, Robyn Regehr provided the hits and the grit he was brought in for and we all saw how the team played when Chrsitian Ehrhoff was out of the lineup. Statistically, neither lived up to expectations. But they fulfilled their roles and were often two of the better players on the ice most nights.

I’m not going to mention Ville Leino, since I’m supposed to be making you feel optimistic about the Sabres’ future, but even he showed a few, albeit very small, signs of life toward the end of the season.

Also on the bright side was Jason Pominville, who shined with the weight of the team’s captaincy hovering above his shoulders all season long. Sure, there may be some truth to the notion that he failed to provide effective leadership to a struggling team. But I think that statement is misguided, as the Sabres’ issues go far deeper than anything one man could have an effect on.

And, if you think about it, Ryan Miller probably can’t do much worse than he did this year. At the very least, he’ll be back healthy next season, likely more motivated to prove everyone wrong as he ever has before.

If Derek Roy makes it through the offseason, the same will go for him. Entering a contract season, if you’re a firm believer that Roy is a selfish player, then he’ll be primed to have one heck of a year. Besides, it was revealed he had still been suffering from his quad injury early in the season, so maybe that held some weight, too.

That brings me to injuries. Wow, I made it almost 3,000 words without the mention of a single injury. One thing is for sure, the team won’t have as many of them next season. I had a better chance with my 10 tickets to win the Mega Millions a few weeks ago.

Look, you’re foolish to suggest the excessive amount of injuries the Sabres suffered this season had no impact on the outcome. You can say teams like Pittsburgh and Detroit played through injuries all season and they turned out just fine. Fine. But you’re comparing apples to oranges.

The Sabres are no Pittsburgh or Detroit — probably the two deepest teams in the entire NHL. The problem this year was that the Sabres lacked depth and mental toughness when a key player fell to injury. And where they did have depth, the players (ie Roy, Stafford, Leino) underachieved. Plain and simple, they just did not possess the talent beyond Myers and Ehrhoff to overcome the losses.

There’s no debating the team needs a change in that department, but why doubt that those necessary changes won’t be coming?

We all know Lindy and Darcy’s days are numbered if the Sabres don’t start winning next season. Most would say they’re way overdue. But I think they know that, too. And I think the bitter taste of this season will linger in the mouths of Pegula, the front office and even the players just enough to where we’ll see an entirely different team come October next year — both in mindset and in personnel.

It’s because of that that I am excited about what the summer — and the future — holds for the Sabres. After all, it’s only been a poor 82 games since the majestic months of eternal optimism existed for Sabres fans. As they say following a three-pitch strikeout in little league baseball (I had plenty of those) in an attempt to pick your spirits up, you’ll get ‘em next time. And they will. One day, the Sabres will get the Stanley Cup.

I know the wait sucks. There’s nothing fun about 41 seasons of falling short. But it sure beats hurling downward toward the league’s dumpster every year.

If I’m wrong (which is always a good possibility), then you’ll be telling me how we should’ve thrown out those Darcy Regier rookie cards a long time ago, anyway.

You almost certainly don’t agree with Brandon’s opinion on this matter, so please, let him hear about it in the comment box or be sure to follow him on Twitter @B_Schlag and express your distaste.

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