Last Tuesday I went to my first Sabres game of the season, as I grabbed two cheap seats on Stubhub thanks to the lack of interest for the team this year and the Winnipeg Jets on a weekday. One of the things I love best about going to a game is being able to watch things away from the play, which I was looking forward to. On television you are confined to what they decide you are seeing. When you're right there you can focus on whatever you'd like. So in this lost season in a mostly meaningless game against Winnipeg I decided I would keep an eye out for Zemgus Girgensons to see if he was playing as well as many were saying.
I was pleased to see that Girgensons seemed to consistently be in the right spots at the right time. He showed a real knowledge of the game, as well as the hustle to make things happen. If his scoring touch develops at the NHL level he could be a very good part of the team going forward. This reminded me of the future core that Darcy Regier put together, one that actually appears to be a good foundation for the next general manager to build upon.
The fanbase has rightfully been bogged down by one of the worst seasons in franchise history with the team being led by a man that most thought should have lost his job a long time ago. Overarching opinions can affect the view of the team and can make you think that there is no hope. Certainly the Sabres are very bad right now, but they have some pieces that could be very important in the future.
It starts with the blueline, as the Sabres hope that some of their top picks develop into serviceable NHL players. Mark Pysyk, who is back after a short stint in Rochester, has possibly been their best defenseman this season after having an impressive end to last year, and now has the ability to score miracle goals. Of course, when talking young defensemen you have to mention this year's picks, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov. Although both made rookie mistakes when up with the big club they both showed a lot of promise for being 18 years old. Add in Christian Ehrhoff, who the team has until 2021, and you could have a good group even if the slowly-improving Tyler Myers doesn't turn things around.
Up front there is the previously mentioned Girgensons, who obviously has been impressing. Mikhail Grigorenko is the real wild-card, but players like Johan Larsson and J.T. Compher are projected to be good pieces for the checking line of the future. Cody Hodgson may not be perfect, but is very good if he's your second center, and with the salary cap going the way it is his cap hit isn't going to look all that ridiculous. Tyler Ennis is someone that will need to be re-signed at the end of the season, but he's played well since Ted Nolan took over.
Now, this group of players is not going to lead you to a Stanley Cup by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the players are role players, which is why the Sabres have been so poor. It's a team full of second and third liners. But say you're bad enough to get a few top picks? Add Sam Reinhart and Connor McDavid to the group, and suddenly the crop looks very strong.
This is no outlandish statement, add two superstars and your team will be good. But people tend to look over the fact that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin aren't the only reasons that the Pittsburgh Penguins are good. Having guys like Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz , and James Neal are also very important. Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis can be two of the league's top scorers every season, but if no one else produces Tampa Bay will continue to not be good enough. Two players don't make a team, and some players who look like underachievers when they are the focus point may look much better when they aren't the players that are being relied on when you need a goal. A prime example is Jason Pominville, who fans became increasingly frustrated with when he was thrust into the forefront. On the 2006 and 2007 teams, he was an incredible piece of the puzzle.
All of this could make the GM job very appealing. The team could be very bad this year and the next without leaving much of a blemish on the new general manager, especially if it's apparent that it is the plan. Then in his second full year the team could be starting to come together and be on the upswing, while he takes credit for the success. If the young group does live up to expectations, the Sabres suddenly could be appealing to free agents as well just like the Penguins have been since Crosby.
So even though things look bleak right now, success may not be all that far away. Nail a few draft picks, and everything can change. This doesn't have to be a five+ year plan, you could turn this around in two seasons if everything goes smoothly. It may be a tough time to be an optimistic Sabres fan, but it isn't time to give up just yet.