Ed Note: This FanPost is a great example of looking to other sports for ways to improve the Sabres organization.
This blog is mainly about the question, "what do I really want my team to be?". The only way you can really compare the NHL and NFL is from a business perspective. The NHL and NFL both have their selling points after all, as the NFL has its big market draws in the Patriots, Jets, and Giants. It also has it's blue collar city, mid-sized market model franchise team: the Steelers. The Steelers are the team that is always in the playoffs, and is always a contender for the Super Bowl. They have a reputation of excellence and any losing is just unacceptable. Lastly, the NFL has its small market success with the strong worldwide following in the Green Bay Packers.
On the NHL side, it also has it's big market villainous team in the New York Rangers, along with its own version of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Detroit Red Wings. Then theres the Buffalo Sabres. We know for sure that no matter who the owner is, he can provide the cash, but this team will never be like the NY Rangers where it can always compete for the #1 elite free agent year in and year out just because it can. But come to think of it, I don't think I ever want the Sabres ever being like the Rangers? I'd rather develop my own talent. The Detroit Red Wings do this better than anyone in the NHL, and the Pittsburgh Steelers do this better than anyone in the NFL. But the Sabres could never be like Detroit, since Southeastern Michigan is a much bigger market than Buffalo. They also have one of the Strongest hockey fan bases in the world, due to the fact that it's also the team that contends for the Stanley Cup every year, and also has a recent track record of doing so. The Red Wing's are the NHL's equivalent to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who contend for the Super Bowl year after year, and also has the most prominent fan base in football. It's just not a fair comparison to make at this time.
What I want for this team, if for us to fulfill the role of small market, mega-success team. I want the Sabres to be the NHL's version of the Green Bay Packers, where if you were to come here as a player, and are willing to live here, it's because you're dead serious about winning. After all, Buffalo is a place of blue-collar hard working people, so why shouldn't our sports teams take resemble this image. I want our team to be a city who's athletes are hard working competitiors, who are serious about creating and maintaing a culture winning big. The winning big part, is the major part of this equation thats been missing in Buffalo for quite some time, and I have much more faith in the Sabres to bring this type of culture to Buffalo than the Bills. The reason why I'm comparing the Sabres to the Packers, is because the Packers are the only team that I can think of as a small market in a very lackluster place on the map, but yet, still has a Super Bowl, and a culture of winning along with success in its identity. Despite Green Bay being the tiniest market in the league, it's still one of the premier places to play. It's also a team that, like the Buffalo Sabres, has had its highs and lows. Unfortunately, Buffalo's highs have never resulted in a Championship, but damn have they been close.
The Packers were a team that like the Sabres, has had plenty of dark ages and plenty of misses in its exsistence. Of course, today we've forgotten all about the dark ages of the 1970's and 80's for the Packers. The Packers changed things for themselves, when they brought in Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, and of course Brett Farve in 1991, and brought themselves back to prominence, and since then, have never looked back. In a time period where everybody is concerned with profit, and making money, the Packers have shown that the small market can pack a powerful economic punch, and a very important team to the NFL.
The last two offseasons for the Sabres made me think: what is this team's selling point to get a player to come here and stay here? How can Buffalo ever be a destination? Buffalo is not the sexiest place to live in the world, its not NYC, the weather sucks, and we're not selling a promise at a Stanley Cup every year like Detroit? Not quite yet anyways. We're not even a city on the rise like Raleigh, NC, or Pheonix, AZ. In fact, we're heading in the opposite direction, and have been for quite some time. Heck, not to get political, but the NYS property taxes are high, and our state income tax is just ridiculous, of course this doesn't help our case. Would anybody be offended if I took a moment to say F-U to Albany?
But there are pros that we do have: passionate people, a city of good neighbors, and probably the toughest city in America. Buffalo is one of a kind, and everyone looks out for one another. Like Green Bay, Buffalo also has its strong sense of community, and closeness with its sports teams. The smaller you are, the closer you are. But, Buffalo and Green Bay are not attractive places to live whatsoever if you're a millionaire professional athlete, and there's not much of an upscale scene for you here the way there is in other cities. I'm not necessarily talking about NYC, Chicago, or LA, but believe it or not, even cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit offer this to its athletes, on a much lesser level of course. But that doesn't mean athletes don't enjoy their time here. Jim Kelly still resides here, and Mario Williams came here for the small town sense of feel that Buffalo offers. Many Sabre alumni maintain homes in Western New York. This city isn't for everyone, but it has its own unique qualities that can pull anyone in.
The goal here is: make Buffalo the place to play in the league, and not just "Hockey Heaven", but also making Buffalo the kind of place you come to only if you are dead serious about winning, just like Green Bay. The selling point in Buffalo is ultimately a winning culture, and this culture will be built through building from within, a model Green Bay and Pittsburgh follow. If you are going to live in either Buffalo or Green Bay as a professional athlete, there is only reason why you would come here: winning a championship. But signing top UFA's year after year isn't how you win that championship and build that culture. After all, just how many big name FA do the Packers sign each year? How many of their players have either been drafted? 80% of the Packers roster was drafted by their organization. You never see Green Bay signing every top FA in the offseason. In the NHL, you hardly ever see Detroit make a huge splash in free agency. How many free agent signings for the NY Rangers flopped? Wade Redden, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Bobby Holik, to name a few.
With an owner like Pegula who's willing to spend and spend again, many fans get excited over the prospects of now being able to sign guys like Brad Richards, Zach Parise, and Ryan Suter, but yet are still disappointed and think not much is changed when they come up short. Ultimately drafting and developing is a model the Sabres themselves should continue to follow within the NHL. I'd rather see the team develop Mikhail Grigorenko and Joel Armia, then try to sign Zach Parise or Brad Richards. When the time is right, and the Sabres are developed and ready to contend, then try and get that last piece to get them over the top, if they don't already have it.
I would love to see the Sabres strive to be another model team in sports. My ultimate goal for this team would not only be to win a championship, but to also be a team that is mentioned in the same breath of not only the Packers, but the Steelers, Red Wings, Spurs, of teams that are among the best run in all of sports as well as a model franchise like the Packers in particular. Yes I know there are obviously differences between the two, such as ownership structure, and Green Bay is actually a smaller market than Buffalo, but this is about perception and team image. Correct me if I'm wrong but I don't really believe there is a team in the NHL across North America that's taken on the Packer like role of model small market team with a nationwide cult following, but if there's one team that can fill that role in the NHL, its the Sabres. And in any sport, because of economics, its not an easy one to fill with success.
There are plenty of Buffalo, NY transplants in other cities, and its tough to go cross-country and not get Buffaloed (meeting someone in another city at random and asking you if your from Buffalo). Plenty of people are watching Sabre games night in and night out, as evidenced by Buffalo's leading TV ratings, and when Buffalo finds itself in the Stanley Cup Finals again, it's going to be hard for people not to root for them as they'll have no problem taking on the role of the "little guy" like Green Bay, and even the role of "the underdog" could end up fitting Buffalo, after all, everyone loves an underdog.
I mentioned earlier that before 1991, Green Bay was pretty irrelevant in the NFL. Buffalo has had some tough seasons in its own right, but not 20 years of irrelevance like Green Bay went through. But what made Green Bay break through was the arrivals of Holmgren, Wolf, and of course Farve.
As far as what the Sabres have now, I believe they have a top 10 GM in Darcy Regier, and an excellent talent evaluator in his front office in Kevin Devine, and thanks to Pegula, an expanded scouting department. I've made it very clear about how I feel about Ruff. I think he's a good coach, and also I think there are better coaches out there, but really needs to move on to another team because he's just a stale act. But, many still believe he deserves the benefit of the doubt. One things for sure, the Sabres think they have their man, and Ruff has gotten close before, but the question is, it's been a while since he's been close, so can he still do it with this team? It'd be quite a story if he did, love him or hate him.
As far as franchise changing players: Ryan Miller is the backbone of this team, and Tyler Myers is our tower of power who will guide us to the front. Who doesn't like Thomas Vanek or Jason Pominville? There's too much talent up front not to believe that one of the kids wont be something special in regards to Hodgson, Ennis, Grigorenko, Armia, Girgensons, and Foligno. These are excellent building blocks, and the Sabres need to continue to make strides in mastering the art of drafting and developing talent, because in the NHL, NFL, or any other sport, you need to find and develop your own studs, and not hoping to trade for and sign away someone else's regularly.
When I said the Sabres would not make the playoffs next year, I meant it more from a fact that healthy or not, I don't think they're quite ready yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did, and I do expect them to push hard for the 7th and 8th seeds. If they land Shane Doan, this may be a different story. They have a talented a group here, and hopefully in 20 years, we can say that they are the NHL's version of the Green Bay Packers, they are three time Stanley Cup Champions, and bode one of the NHL's 5 strongest fanbases, with a nationwide cult following as they are recognized as one of the "model franchises in all of sports"