What in the blue and gold hell happened? It seemed like a glorious day in team history when the Pegula family bought the Buffalo Sabres from then owner Tom Golisano.
It seemed like we had a great owner, a great organization, and a vision of "Hockey Heaven"?
And almost a decade later, we are not just a dumpster fire. That would be an improvement. Instead we turned ourselves into a California wildfire on the brink of potentially considering trading their star center, Jack Eichel. And god forbid if we do that, it will be the equivalent of a super volcano eruption at Yellowstone. You almost kind of wish that there was a television show out there similar to "Bar Rescue" or "The Profit", where someone goes around to struggling sports teams and helps them get turned around.
First and foremost, to try and dissect what the hell is going on here, you have to go to the beginning.
Quick Fixes and Miscalculations
I don’t think the Pegulas along with Ted Black came in with the idea of tanking, and I believe they came in with the mindset of a quick turnaround. Go back to their first offseason. We had Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Derek Roy, all 28 years of age. Drew Stafford was 26. We had Ryan Miller. We had Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis, two good young players. We had up and comers in Cody Hodgson who at the time could have been seen as a high potential center, as well as Marcus Foligno and Brayden McNabb. Coming out of a first round bounce against the Flyers in 2011, ownership came in, and Darcy Regier was likely feeling the heat. There were no more excuses, now we had an owner with deep pockets willing to spend, something that many felt was lacking for quite some time.
The quick-fix and gross-miscalculation mentality was instilled, likely because Regier was feeling the pressure out of desperation. They immediately convinced Robyn Regehr to waive his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo. They then pursued Brad Richards in free agency. Then of course, "so no Richards", so we went to plan B and signed Ville Leino. They also signed Christian Ehrhoff to a long term deal. Now we can understand why Regier was making those moves during that time period, but we were also very lucky for compliance buyouts otherwise those contracts would have had some serious cap ramifications today. We also drafted Joel Armia, a player who we probably could use on this roster today, but we will get to that later. Then, Milan Lucic hit Ryan Miller, which should in my opinion be the symbol for the beginning of the end in Buffalo. Their first season was a dud and we missed the playoffs by three points.
It only gets worse from here. We drafted Mikhail Grigorenko in 2012 after he free fell in the draft and was immediately anointed as a franchise centerman and kept on with the get bigger mentality and selected Zemgus Girgensons 14th overall. In 2013, the trend continued again as the team drafted Rasmus Ristolainen, and Nikita Zadorov in round one. The Sabres still struggled and were visibly in decline, many long time veterans were moved, and hence, the tank began, with Darcy Regier still GM. But Darcy didn’t leave without giving Sabres fans the Thomas Vanek deal which returned Matt Moulson’s expiring contract and a first round pick. We did however make the mistake of re-signing Moulson the following offseason.
Pat Lafontaine was brought in with Ted Nolan, and Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier were fired. The sight of Lafontaine and Nolan seemed to be a feel good move. Tim Murray became the successor and attempted to look for the quick-fix, not out of desperation like Regier, but because he likely legitimately believed he was able to turn it around quickly. Murray didn't seem to believe in five year rebuilds. It seemed like he was a man with a plan. He acquired Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian as one of his first big moves, in a trade involving Tyler Myers, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux, Drew Stafford and a first round pick which eventually became Jack Roslovic. He also made a splash around the 2015 draft, moving first for Robin Lehner, as well as J.T Compher, Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov, and a second rounder for Ryan O'Reilly.
Five years later, all we have to show for the Lehner, Kane, and O’Reilly trades are: Brandon Montour, Ryan Johnson, and Tage Thompson. Montour could also be moved at the trade deadline, and his current value right now could be nothing more than a second round pick at best. And all those three players ended up costing us Tyler Myers, Joel Armia, Brendan Lemieux, a first round pick (Jack Roslovic), a second first round pick (Colin White), J.T Compher, Brendan Lemieux, and a second round pick (Jeremy Roy). We also had to include Brendan Guhle to get Montour. The Ryan O’Reilly trade would prove to be disastrous and another major gross-miscalculation would occur when the team believed Casey Mittelstadt could be the team’s number two centerman.
Fast forward to 2021, the Sabres might have an opportunity to regain some currency back by moving Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, and Brandon Montour at the deadline. At best, you hope the Sabres can regain a first, second, and third round pick for the trio.
Who is Really in Charge and is Anyone on the Same Page?
Another major issue in the Sabres organization that I see is the lack of structure. Who in the hell is actually making the decisions and is anyone ever on the same page when they are hired?
Going back to 2014 when Pat Lafontaine was hired, he was rumored to be highly in favor of keeping Ryan Miller as well as giving Ted Nolan a contract extension, which was in contrast to the direction Terry Pegula and then GM Tim Murray wanted to take.
I’m also curious to know more about the Ryan O’Reilly situation here. Was there really a rift between him and Eichel? Did he silently request a trade from the Sabres? Did the owners put pressure on Botterill to move him as soon as possible before his signing bonus kicked in? Did O'Reilly simply just want out because he had concerns about the direction of the Sabres?
Then of course there is the hiring of Ralph Krueger. Krueger reminds me personally of a politician with the way he speaks. He’s an excellent speaker, and it can be easy to buy into what this guy has to offer. I personally never understood the hype with hiring the guy. Back when he was hired, it was rumored that one of the key points the Sabres were looking at for the job was how a new coach would utilize and improve Rasmus Ristolainen. Little did we know the question we should have been asking was how do we utilize Jeff Skinner? At the time, it really didn’t seem like a question that needed to be asked.
Ralph Krueger has an extremely impressive life story and resume. He’s an author, a great motivator, involved in the World Economic Forum, and had a run in the soccer world as sporting director of Southampton, an overachieving club in the English Premier League. He did have a decent run with the Swiss National Hockey team, but what has he accomplished at the NHL level in a league where you can’t necessarily pick your players the way you can for the Olympics? What has he really accomplished in the NHL? He was an assistant for a year in Edmonton under Tom Renney, and then was the Head Coach for a half season for the Oilers and didn’t even post a winning record or make the playoffs with the 8th seed.
A lot of times to be successful, you have to work with what you have, and that seems to be a barrier with Krueger at this point. Jeff Skinner is not the player he needs to be in this system for Krueger. And more importantly, when you look at the defensive additions that Jason Botterill was making towards the end of the 2019 season and in the middle of the 2019 offseason with acquiring mobile puck movers in Brandon Montour and Colin Miller, those were players that were a fit for Phil Housley’s style that he wanted to play, but have probably clashed with the style of play Krueger wants to play. Which makes me wonder if Jason Botterill and Krueger were ever on the same page?
And then you arrive at Kevyn Adams who was thrust into the GM job. At this point, with the way things have shaped up with the Pegula ownership of the Sabres, this move almost reminds me of when the Bills hired Marv Levy as GM back in 2006. It seems like a move made by an organization because the owner wants someone they personally know and trust, even though he may not be best qualified for the job, because the Pegulas probably want to be listened to, and to be more involved in hockey operations. I don’t know this for sure, but at this point, that's sure what it looks like.
Now if Krueger requires certain players to run a system in Buffalo, then in theory Adams should be just as responsible for what has transpired this year, because he has not gotten the players Krueger needs, which Paul Hamiton just wrote an article about for channel two news Buffalo. But at the same time, the Sabres also did put all their free agency dollars into the Taylor Hall bin, and then likely overpaid for Cody Eakin, and re-signing Zemgus Girgensons. The Sabres were also rumored to have been looking to establish an internal salary cap, but that might have changed when Taylor Hall became an option. Let’s be honest though, this was a move that was made to make Jack Eichel happy, and it hasn’t worked for the team. The team lacks grit, and toughness, and this has been a problem for years and we’re almost allergic to addressing the issue, just like the Bills are allergic to addressing their lack of a strong pass-catching tight end.
In fact, we’ve done a great job of sending out the grit, toughness on this team over the past few years. Marcus Foligno, Joel Armia, Will Carrier are all the types of players that we need on this roster right now, and not for Krueger’s system, but any system. Even Brandon Hagel, a player who early on this year has become a fan favorite of the Blackhawks could have helped in that department, but the Sabres chose not to offer him a contract. Marcus Foligno developed into one of the better two-way forwards in the league after he was traded from the Sabres. He earned a contract extension with Minnesota. The only two guys on the roster right now who consistently bring it every night with competitiveness, grit, and toughness are Jake McCabe and Rasmus Ristolainen. With McCabe out, that seems to fall on Ristolainen, although Dylan Cozens took a step in that department in trying to make something happen. As much as Ristolainen has been the whipping boy for years, he has had a strong season this year, and probably the only bright spot from the Ralph Krueger era.
Then we arrive at Jack Eichel.
Jack Eichel, a Blessing and a Curse
Having a player like Eichel is a blessing and a curse. But the Sabres as an organization have now transitioned from an organization looking for quick fixes, and band-aids because they want to win quickly and not have a five year rebuild, to one that is now trying to keep Jack Eichel happy. That is a very tough spot to be in as an organization. We’ve actually been doing that for quite some time, even going back to firing Dan Bylsma. It may not be the sole reason he was fired by any stretch, but i'm sure it was an added bonus. Hell, we even brought in his friend Jimmy Vesey last season, but to be fair I thought Vesey could at least help the Sabres secondary scoring. I'm sure the Sabres viewed his relationship with Eichel as a bonus. I suspect he won’t be too happy by the trade deadline when Eric Staal, Taylor Hall, and Brandon Montour are all traded and when Jeff Skinner remains buried by Krueger, even with Hall and Staal gone.
We anointed him as the franchise savior from the day he was drafted, and truthfully gave him a ton of leverage and power from day one. We handed him a ten million dollar a year contract automatically without hesitation after a 64 point in 67 game season assuming he would eventually be worth it, and we were right. The point there is, we assumed everything would be automatic with Eichel. We just guessed that he would be franchise cornerstone. We were luckily right. We assumed he would get Buffalo to the playoffs, we are still waiting on that one. But we were also a desperate organization. We were an organization desperate for star power since the day Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left. Even Ryan Miller being traded at the early stages of the rebuild left a sting.
We failed to place a team around Jack Eichel, plain and simple.
In hindsight, we might be better off with J.T Compher, Nikita Zadorov, Joel Armia, and Brendan Guhle on the roster to play roles. While I don’t have an issue with the O’Reilly trade to acquire him, the other big trades between 2014 and 2015, I could do without. But still, just imagine if we keep a couple of those 2015 picks and used them. Maybe we draft Travis Konecny, Jack Roslovic, or Brock Boeser. Maybe we package some picks and move up for a stronger player like Kyle Connor or Mathew Barzal.
Maybe we end up with Brandon Carlo or Sebastien Aho. We had many great options in the strong 2015 draft, and it’s not like we would have hit on picks 21, 25, and 31, but there’s a good chance we end up 1 or 2 NHL caliber players. And then maybe instead of trying to make the playoffs right away in 2016, we are taking another year or two to rebuild and maybe draft just a little higher. Instead of throwing six million a year at Kyle Okposo, who lets not forget by the way, he was the clear number two free agent five years ago, maybe we have some money to fill out the roster and add some grit, toughness, and quality role players.
Organizational depth does matter in a game with so much parity. And the Sabres have been lacking in this department for quite some time. We forget quite easily that one player does not make up a team, and as much as I don’t want to trade Jack Eichel, it’s going to become reality quite soon.
To Trade or Not to trade Eichel?
If the Sabres do trade Jack Eichel in the future, a player with term, youth, and one of the top ten players in the game at a position of the top line center spot that rarely comes available, they will likely return even more than what Colorado returned with Matt Duchene. Every GM in the league will be willing to pay for a top player.
A Jack Eichel trade can be done right, and the farm system can be rebuilt, the main roster can also get some young roster players to help. Sabres do have some impressive young prospects with star potential, there is also a drop off in the talent pool after the top young guys like Cozens, Quinn, and Luukkonen.
But key for maximizing a return on an Eichel trade is hitting on the young prospects and draft picks that you acquire in return, and as much as I can play armchair GM, let me ask you this simple question: Do you trust the Sabres organization to get such a trade right? Do you trust Adams, an inexperienced front office executive in making such a deal?
When I look at possible trade partners for Eichel, I strongly am opposed to sending him to the New York Rangers, mainly because I don’t want to see this guy several times a year. I am open to moving him to an Eastern Conference team, I strongly prefer to send him west. I personally see the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks as the two best fits.
The New York Rangers lack the center prospects in their organization that I would want to acquire in a deal for Eichel. The Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks have plenty to offer. Anaheim also has a potential top ten pick in this years draft. Down the middle, the Ducks have players such as: Trevor Zegras, Sam Steel, Isac Lundestrom, Beniot Oliver-Groulx to include in a trade. A move for Eichel would likely start a new era in Anaheim once Ryan Getzlaf departs this offseason, or at the trade deadline if he desires to be moved to a contender.
Los Angeles however is the perfect scenario for me and almost seems like the stars have aligned for both sides. It would be the second biggest trade in franchise history for the Kings, the first being the Wayne Gretzky trade of course. The Kings are positioned to make such a move and have all the parts to make it happen. They have a very deep pool of centers. Quinton Byfield is their top prospect, and not too far behind him is former number five overall pick: Alex Turcotte. On the roster, the Kings also have Gabriel Vilardi, although he might present some risk with an injury history. We’re not done yet. Rasmus Kupari, a 2018 first rounder has gotten off to a great start with the Ontario Reign. Tyler Madden, the son of former NHL forward John Madden is another solid young prospect.
The Kings are also competing for a playoff spot this year, and they could be a Jack Eichel away from being serious contenders again. With Eichel on the roster, he gives them a 24-year old superstar in their prime to place with their longtime franchise cornerstone and one of their elder players: Anze Kopitar, as well as their young up and coming towering center, Quinton Byfield when he gets to the main roster. While Byfield is a player many fans would love to pry away from the Kings, I'm sure he’ll be one that will be tough for the Kings to part with as I am sure the Kings would love to have him develop behind Kopitar and Eichel in such a scenario.
What direction do the Sabres go in from here?
Of course there is the option of keeping him, but unfortunately, we have managed to turn the possibility of an Eichel trade into the single most talked about topic in the league and an issue that will only continue to serve as a major distraction for the organization. It’s not what many people want to hear, but it's become reality.
We also have to determine what kind of team we want to become in such a scenario, which is something I'm not sure the organization has given much thought to. Michigan hockey games are a must watch this year in college hockey if you’re a Sabres fan, and we already have one of their players in 6’6 goaltender, Erik Portillo. They also hold top ten draft prospects in defenseman Luke Hughes, and puck wizard center Kent Johnson. Both guys could go top ten in the draft.
Do the Sabres try to do something completely different and put more of an emphasis on grit, competitiveness, sound two-way play, toughness, and work ethic in their players? With a player like towering 6’5 defenseman Owen Power at the top of draft boards, it may be the direction to take. If we end up drafting a little lower in the top 4 or 5, maybe it’s another Michigan player in center Matthew Beniers. Berniers is a two-way stud who defensively has some resemblance to Anton Lundell in his game, and has plenty of upside offensively to be a top six center in the NHL. The need for grit and toughness has once again become an issue with the Sabres, and has once again become a repetitive theme for this team.
If Krueger is fired, the new head coach needs to be chosen carefully with a vision in place. For example, if John Tortorella were to come available, the roster would need some serious tweaks and a different direction to fit what he would want to do. I’m not saying the Sabres should hire him if he comes available, but that there is a particular style a coach like him will want to play, and it will require grit, toughness, and sound two-way play. A coach like Torts will demand it from his team, no matter who is on the roster.
The Sabres need a coach who has the ability to adapt to the talent he has on his team, and they also will have to figure out what type of coach they want if they move on from Kreuger. Do they go for a seasoned veteran? Can they even convince a guy like that to come here? If Bruce Boudreau, Claude Julien, Gerard Gallant, even Mike Babcock, you might be hesitant to take the Buffalo job. Current Penguins assistant Todd Reirden, who is still relatively young at 49 years old with a moderate amount of success with a 89-46-16 record as Capitals Head Coach is an option.
Maybe it’s current AHL Coach of the Year, Karl Taylor from the Milwaukee Admirals, who has a 77-38-24 record with the tem. Maybe it’s another AHL Head Coach Mike Vellucci, who happened to win the award the year before with the Charlotte Checkers. Vellucci has won championships in both the AHL and OHL as well as coach of the year in both leagues. Maybe it’s current two time OHL Coach of the Year, Andre Touriginy.
But at the same time, I have lost faith in the Sabres ability to even get such a process right. The other question of course is if Kevyn Adams is even the right guy in his position? While I know some may be against a President of Hockey Operations, it may be a good P.R move to bring one in after this season, especially if you determine you want Adams here long term, and leading the charge on some huge organizational decisions. It may help to have a guy help provide some direction to the organization, and some advice to Adams.
Whatever happens from here, one thing is for sure, when the Sabres start allowing fans back into the arena, they may as well not even allow fans back, because I don’t know too many people right now who would even be willing to spend money on this product, let alone, go through all the additional hurdles such as covid-testing within 72 hours of a game just to get to a game. For this current product, no thanks, and I have never thought I would ever get to this point.