On November 25th, the Buffalo Sabres were 25 games into their season and sat atop the NHL standings with 36 points. Fast forward 45 days and they find themselves outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
The plan going into this season was to see some improvement and development from a club that finished with 62 points and in last place last year. Most people would have accepted a season that saw the Sabres end with around 84 points.
That expectation shouldn’t be forgotten.
However, the moment the Sabres won 10 games in a row, the expectations changed. They were 10 points up on a playoff spot and had over an 80 percent chance to make the postseason depending on where you looked.
Now, in the midst of six wins in their last 21 games the sentiment around the team has gone back to this being a development year again. Even though they’ve played that poorly over the last month and a half; the Sabres were still only three points out of the playoffs entering play yesterday.
This is the closest they’ve been to a playoff spot this late in the season since they last made it into the tournament seven years ago. Yet, the sentiment around the league and even in Buffalo by some is to just let this run its course.
It would be unwise for the Sabres to give up any assets to just get swept in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, they say.
When is going to be ok to try to make the playoffs again?
I totally understand the development route and I was fully on board with tanking back in 2015. I’m even the same person who wrote about Jason Botterill having a ‘2020 plan’. Obviously, this team as constructed is not going to challenge for a Stanley Cup. That doesn’t mean they still can’t push to be a playoff team.
It feels like this fan base is shell-shocked from all the bad hockey and rebuilding. Fans hold the thought of the future so tightly that it blinds their views on making a move now to help the current team.
Remember back in the 2016-17 season when the Toronto Maple Leafs were a surprise team? They were in the mix for the playoffs with a young core in Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.
They were still in the middle of “rebuilding”, but a strong season leading up to the trade deadline changed the expectations. Instead of sitting on their hands, the Leafs made a move to acquire Brian Boyle for a second-round pick and Byron Froese.
The Leafs went on to the make the playoffs and were supposed to get swept by the Washington Capitals. While they ended up losing that series; they pushed it to six games and fought the Capitals the entire way.
Young players on that roster got some vital playoff experience and look where they are now two years later.
Winning and being competitive in the NHL is a process that takes a few years. The Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and Tampa Bay Lightning have all recently went through this process.
What’s that process you ask? Well here it is:
Step 1: Get in the playoffs and get young roster experience.
Step 2: Make a playoff run, but lose before the Stanley Cup Finals.
Step 3: Become an annual competitor in your Conference.
It’s about a three-year process in which the Sabres have the ability to move up their timeline due to the hot start. Unfortunately, it looks as though the management team is content to wave at that opportunity as it passes them by for the sake of development.
I’m not advocating that the Sabres use one of their three first-round picks to go run down Matt Duchene at the deadline, but there’s no reason that can’t use another less-valuable asset to bring in another player.
One name for example that has been in the rumor mill lately is Jakob Silfverberg. Acquiring a player of that stature wouldn’t cost the Sabres a first-round pick, but would be an improvement to the roster.
Botterill could very likely be on the phones trying to make a move, but with the point it’s at now teams know the Sabres could be desperate. Which, would make it difficult to find a suitable trade.
Moving past the trade discussion.
How about trying to look for help in your own system? The Sabres have made 10 call-ups this season. Nine of them have been on defense and goaltending. The one recall at forward was C.J. Smith. He played in three games, scored a goal, and was then sent back down to the AHL.
It’s likely the Sabres don’t have anyone with the Amerks that are going to move the needle drastically, but we haven’t even tried to find out. Instead, they’ve stood by watching the scoring outside of the top line drown, like their position in the standings.
We’re four years into Jack Eichel’s career and are still talking about development and “next year”. Is it not worth the risk of using a mid-round pick or mid-level prospect to try to get some playoff experience for the young core? Not to mention what it’ll do for the fan base that has loyally stuck with the team.
Or should we just stockpile some more prospects and see what happens in the summer? Then we’ll all hope (again) next year they’ll be a playoff team and begin their process to becoming a contending team.
It may be time to put winning over development. Too long has this organization hoarded draft picks and talked about their prospect pool. Doing nothing and letting this ship sink could have a bigger negative impact on the future, than using a valuable asset to try to return to respectability in the league.