Hello, DBTB. I’m a Sabres fan originally from Kansas City, currently in Des Moines for college. I’ve got significant roots in Buffalo, so I pull hard for the teams from both Buffalo and Kansas City.
This gives me an interesting view of the Sabres’ current rebuilding process. Both Kansas City teams- the Chiefs and the Royals- finished a rebuilding process of their own and got back to the playoffs within the last ten months. The Chiefs seemed to make all the right decisions and went from last place in the NFL to a playoff berth in one season. The Royals seemed to make all the wrong decisions and took 29 years to return to the MLB playoffs after their last championship.
You might not care about the Chiefs or Royals, but bear with me here. They’re pretty unique teams for begin from the same city. If we put them on opposite ends of a spectrum, we can put the Sabres’ current rebuilding process into context. And the Sabres’ current rebuild looks really good. I’ll give you three reasons why:
1. The GM
The most important part of any rebuild is having the right general manager for the job. They dictate what direction the team will take in the rebuilding process. Will it be long or short? Will the team be completely cleaned out or will some players stick around?
How to do it right: Current Chiefs GM John Dorsey has done a great job, but scapegoat GM Scott Pioli actually did a fantastic job acquiring talent. The common bond between the two is locating good talent- either in the draft or in other teams’ prospects- and building a strong, youthful core.
How to do it wrong: To be fair, there’s no "wrong" way to rebuild a team if you still make the playoffs. But if there was, Royals GM Dayton Moore would be a great example. When he was hired in 2006, Moore (in)famously said
"If you make enough good decisions, three-year plans turn into two-year plans and five-year plans turn into three-year plans. If you make bad decisions, 10-year plans turn into no plan."
Whatever plan Moore had, it turned into an eight year plan, and if the Royals had lost two more games this year, it would have been precariously close to "no plan."
What went wrong? Royals owner David Glass has a notoriously tight wallet, and so Moore was forced to try to get a ton of young talent. It all blew up in his face. The Royals didn’t have coaches or managers to foster the prospects into stars, and the "veteran leadership" was mostly made up of journeymen who would be bench players on other teams.
So what are the Sabres doing? The Sabres are doing it right. Tim Murray is the right GM for the job. He’s done a lot of work assembling a good pool of prospects, but he’s also smart enough not to wipe the slate clean, since Regier provided him with some nice toys to play with in-house.
When Murray had to spend money to get up to the salary floor, he chose to spend it on strong veteran leadership that would help his young players become solid starters. And I’d like to think he’s aware that he’s essentially one key piece away from collecting the entire set. It’s that rare trading card that you have to open five hundred packs to get, except Murray knows exactly where to get one. Is he willing to scrap the season to obtain that metaphorical holographic Charizard? Boy, I hope so. The main goal for Murray this season should be watering his flowerbed of hockey players, patiently watching them grow, while trying to find those rare plant seeds that will really put the garden over the top.
2. The coaches
Once you’ve got the right general manager for the job he can assemble the right pool of players, and once he assembles the right pool of players, it’s important to find the right coach to help them reach their full potential. Having great prospects with the wrong coach is like having a bunch of Lamborghinis in a world with no traffic laws. They’ll be fun to drive around for a little bit, but they won’t last very long and they’ll end up on fire by the side of the road.
Okay, fine, I’ll stop the metaphors for a while.
How to do it right: The Chiefs and Andy Reid were a great fit for each other. The clean slate provided by Kansas City revitalized Reid, and, well, Reid was still a great coach that kind of fell into the Chiefs’ lap. To be completely honest, the Chiefs just got lucky. But the head coach isn’t the only one that matters- and from top to bottom the Chiefs have assembled a great coaching staff- and that’s just as important as having great players.
How to do it wrong: No one really knows what Ned Yost is doing, but he somehow made the playoffs and is inexplicably the longest-tenured Royals manager ever, so at this point Royals fans are just letting him do his thing and hoping he doesn’t get in the way.
Coaching is important.
So what are the Sabres doing? The Sabres are doing it right. They weren’t going to have the good fortune of having a fantastic coach fall into their hands, but Ted Nolan appears to be the right choice to lead this team. His first stint with the Sabres was a little before my time, but I’ve been impressed from what I’ve seen this time around. He gets the most out of his players every night and isn’t going to baby anyone along- and for a young team like the Sabres, that’s huge.
3. The players
Wait, didn’t we get the players up in step 1, when we picked a GM? Yes, we did, but you can’t build a championship team completely on your own. You need to be able to get some above-average veterans to complement the young stars you’ve brought up. Getting the right veterans is typically the last touch; it’s the final piece of the championship puzzle.
How to do it right: The Chiefs traded a couple draft picks to get Alex Smith from the 49ers. They took advantage of the 49ers’ surplus of quarterbacks to get their last major puzzle piece, and then added some veteran players to shore up other weak spots. The result? Playoffs.
How to do it (kind of) wrong: The Royals knew they were never really even close to contending until two off-seasons ago, when they traded a few of their top prospects for an elite starting pitcher and a not-as-good starting pitcher. In the first year, the not-as-good pitcher imploded, and one of the traded prospects won the rookie of the year award on his new team.
Then, everything somehow came together this year, so we can't consider this "wrong." They basically did the same thing the Chiefs did, except they gave up a lot more. But that was okay. They finally had the foundation, and only need a little bit of a push to get them over the top.
So what are the Sabres doing? We haven’t gotten to this part of the process yet. We brought in veterans this offseason, but these aren’t veterans that are going to put Buffalo back in to the playoffs- these are veterans that are going to mentor our younger players (and give the appearance we aren’t openly trying to tank this year).
In the near future, the Sabres are going to have lots of prospects they could use to trade for a top-tier veteran that could put them over the top. Or they could try to lure some veterans in during free agency- surely some players like what they see beginning in Buffalo.
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I’m only in college, but between Buffalo and Kansas City sports teams, I’ve seen more than enough rebuilding phases to last a lifetime. The good news for the Sabres? This is one of the best I’ve seen. You don’t need me to tell you this- you already knew it- but the Sabres are assembling a fantastic team in Buffalo, and if they can land McDavid or Eichel in next year’s draft, they are well on their way to a championship-contending team.
I’m writing this on the day of the season opener because it’s going to be a long, tough season and some us might not make it out alive get frustrated along the way. Just remember- there are some fantastic days ahead in Buffalo. The Sabres are rebuilding the right way.