So, you’ve decided to tank. Welcome to the club, Kevyn. We’ve been expecting you.
It’s really not fair that we have to talk about this again, so soon after the last Tank, not to mention the subsequent mini-Tank but we’ve all had a couple of weeks now to process what happened on Locker Clean Out Day and there’s no way around it. The disagreement over his surgical options is clearly a signal that Jack wants out and if that’s the case, you start rebuilding now. Don’t drag your feet. So if all this is inevitable, what lessons can we take from the last decade of tanking in the NHL?
Write a letter:
"It may require some suffering. I understand what we're talking about here. I understand our fan base. And I would like to think that people will give up some suffering in order to win the Stanley Cup."
Those words were uttered 8 years and 3 GMs ago by Darcy Regier and he was mostly ridiculed for doing so. His mistake? Saying those words out loud at a press conference. The Rangers and Blackhawks announced their rebuilds in a Letter To The Fans, using almost the same words as Darcy but were universally lauded for being super classy and tanking the Right Way. So the lesson here is that the art of letter writing never goes out of style. Also the Original 6 teams will always get the benefit of the doubt from hockey media.
Embrace the Tank:
If you’re gonna tank, tank with pride. "Damn right we’re rebuilding. We screwed up the last one and now we’ve gotta do it again." There’s no sense in pretending everything is fine and this is exactly how you drew it up. I don’t want to hear you talk about how the team is "rebuilding on the fly" or "we think we can contend even without Jack Eichel." Nonsense. You’re tanking, everyone knows you’re tanking, and it’s okay to admit it, even if you don't use that word.
Trade everything that isn’t nailed down:
This is one thing the previous Tank got right. The team was bad, they had a ton of veterans who were all coming up on unrestricted free agency within a couple of years, and they all got traded. Tim Murray got a lot of crap for dealing everyone and his mother but which of those trades should he not have made? Which UFA should he have allowed to walk away for nothing? This situation is a little different. The only pending UFAs next season are Eakin, Risto, & Miller. All three should be gone by next year’s trade deadline. Take whatever you can get.
Don’t go chasing wins:
First of all, it ain’t gonna work. You’re not going to be able to put together a playoff-contending team next season or the one after that. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that by signing a few veterans you might be in the hunt if everything breaks right. It’s a fool’s errand. You’d have to overpay to get veterans to come here and you need that cap space. (For what? Stay tuned). Second, you don’t want to win games. You want to be competitive but still lose. You need to be drafting in the top 5 for the next few years. Don’t take your eye off the prize. A more prudent course of action is to sign veteran role-players to short-term contracts and then flip them at the deadline for picks & prospects.
EDIT: Also don't get fooled if the team overachieves in a couple of years. That doesn't mean they're ready to compete yet. Stay on schedule.
Don’t go chasing losses:
The Tank Era Sabres fielded a team of Swiss league rejects; guys who couldn’t cut it in the AHL. Remember Jerry D’Amigo? Andre Benoit? Linus Omark? Those teams were unwatchable. The good news here is that there’s already a ton more talent on the current Sabres’ roster than last time. But don’t be tempted to hold any of the young players down in the AHL just to pursue the #1 overall draft pick. In the history of the draft lottery, the Sabres have never moved up in the selection order. Even when they picked first overall, they had the worst record, so they’ve only kept their rightful place. The lottery has never been kind to the Sabres. You want to put a fun, youthful team on the ice who put up a good fight, keep it close, but ultimately still need to learn how to win (god, I hate that phrase).
Weaponize your cap space:
Smart hockey people have been throwing this phrase around a lot the past few years and it’s something the Sabres have never done. What it means is, this team is going to be clearing out a lot of cap space in the off-season. They should use that cap space to take on cap dumps in exchange for picks and prospects. The Hurricanes are the poster children for this. They plucked Teuvo Teravainen from the Blackhawks because they also took Bryan Bickell’s contract. They got a 1st round pick from the Leafs for taking Patrick Marleau off their hands. This year Detroit & San Jose both acted as cap space brokers, taking partial cap hits in 3-way deals and receiving picks for their troubles. Do this, please.
Never, ever, ever trade a 1st round draft pick:
This is where the last Tank went off the rails. As we all know, the draft is a crapshoot, and you need as many rolls of the dice as you can get. Evander Kane & Robin Lehner were fine players while they were here (sorta). And here’s where I start splitting hairs. The Sabres won those trades but they still shouldn’t have done it because they lost out on the opportunity to draft better players than the ones they acquired. The Sabres acquired 1st round picks when they traded Miller, Vanek, & Kane and used none of those picks. I won’t get into the "coulda picked this guy" business but let’s just say trading 1st round picks for even young veterans during a rebuild is a bad idea.
Do not give in to the pressure:
You’re going to get a lot of heat from fans, from media, and probably from ownership to speed up the rebuild. Do not pay any attention to that crap. You can place the failure of Tank 1.0 at the feet of two things: poor drafting after Round 1 and trying to speed up the timeline. Trading for O’Reilly, Lehner, & Kane may have seemed like a good idea, but there wasn’t enough depth on the team to put together even two good lines and the defense was a horror show. Every time a team has tried to press fast forward on their rebuild it’s ended poorly. This is going to be the biggest pitfall. Hextall got fired for refusing to do it in Philly. Gorton just got fired for not doing it in NY. It’s a risk standing up to ownership but if Terry says, "It’s been a few years, why aren’t we Cup contenders yet?" you gotta be straight with him and say, "Because it takes longer than that. Remember what happened last time?" And lastly.
Let them play.
I wrote about this last offseason. You want to keep fans interested in the team? Play the babies. And by that I mean, hire a coach who’s going to play a fun, up tempo style. Play high event hockey. You’ll give up a ton of goals and lose a lot of games but people will show up to watch you lose 5-3. But they won't come to watch you lose 2-0. Also if you want fans to show up, improve the in-arena experience. I can’t really speak to that first hand, being a downstater, but I’ve read enough complaints here to know something has to be done. More giveaways, more theme nights, better amenities. That sort of thing.
I hate that we’ve come back around to tanking again but I’ve had some time to think, to go through all the stages of grief and I’ve finally come around to acceptance. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen but let’s at least learn from history so we’re not doomed to repeat it.