The Buffalo Sabres are a cautionary tale

The Nashville Predators need to rebuild, but carefully.

Everyone knew, going into the 2015 NHL Draft, that Connor McDavid was an extraordinary talent.

The word “generational” is overused in a desperate please-like-my-sport bid, but a hockey generation of about ten years makes some kind of sense: in every group that grew up watching the last one or two The Guys, there’s another one or two The Guys. McDavid was eight years old, give or take some months, when Sidney Crosby was drafted.

More to the point, the players who get called “generational” are players who everyone knows, even before their draft year: hey. This guy’s going to be good.

The Buffalo Sabres were among the several teams that went all-in on McDavid in the years leading up to the 2015 draft. As the 2014-15 season wore on, their tank war with the Arizona Coyotes reached the point of infamy, and helped spark a change to the rules of the NHL draft itself. And by some measures, including final record, that 2015 Sabres team was actually better than the 2014 Sabres.

Of course, the Edmonton Oilers won the McDavid lottery—whether they were actually trying, who knows. And after their extended tear-it-all-down rebuild, the Sabres drafted second in a class with a phenomenal top one-two option and chose Jack Eichel.

In spite of Eichel’s undeniable ability, many Buffalo fans were resentful of having lost the lottery. Some people had already gotten their Sabres McDavid jerseys; there were rumors that Eichel was asked to sign one. The fans, after two years of absolutely atrocious hockey, felt that they deserved that first overall pick.

Fast-forward almost six years, and the Sabres are...still bad.

They have not made the playoffs. They have not almost made the playoffs. They drafted Rasmus Dahlin first overall in 2018, which—in combination with the absolute collapses of the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings—may have helped to bring them to a lofty sixth-place finish in the Atlantic in both 2019 and 2020. With the temporary realignment for this odd 2021 season, with the Red Wings in the Central and the Senators in the North, the Sabres are once again in last-place 8th in the East.

Buffalo Sabres: Then and Now | Die By the Blade

It’s been a long, hard rebuild for the Sabres. They have players—both young players drafted and older players acquired through trade or free agency. They’ve cycled through GMs and coaches rapidly. Ownership has cut the legs out from under the team at every opportunity. Their fans want to believe, and in fact it’s hard to believe that the Sabres can just keep being bad.

Die By the Blade ran a poll in January 2018 asking Sabres fans what their outlook on the team’s future was. Over four out of five respondents believed that the Sabres would have managed at least one postseason appearance by the end of 2021.

As of Wednesday, March 10, according to Micah Blake McCurdy’s model, the Sabres have dropped below a 1% chance to make the 2021 playoffs. Congratulations, 98 Sabres pessimists of 2018; it’s not much consolation, but you were right.

So what went wrong, and how did it get that bad?

The Sabres tore down their entire team for parts and then drafted poorly. Their scorched-earth tanking strategy left them with a pile of rubble instead of a roster, and a few talented young players whose NHL debuts came with a smoldering wasteland of a team. They had no foundations, they had no prospect depth, they had no consistent team culture, and very soon they had no hope.

They’ve added to that problem by trying to contend. Pressured by ownership, instead of looking to build slowly, they’ve tied up massive amounts of cap space in questionable long-term contracts and botched trades made under pressure. Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile is lucky enough to have ownership who doesn’t try to run the team for him, but enough NHL GMs make bad decisions on their own that it’s still a pitfall to beware.

If the Predators are looking to rebuild—as they should be—there are a few obvious cautions. We’ll have more coverage on the potential rebuild, both looking at successful ones managed by other teams and studying what the process might actually look like for this team, but here are the first big Nos:

Don’t trade all your players.

Barring injury, you shouldn’t be icing an AHL team. There are risks to a rumored Mattias Ekholm trade, as he’s the member of the defense corps with the fewest long-term injury concerns at present, but the potential return could be excellent. Same thing with Filip Forsberg—while the return could be great, his absence would leave a massive hole in an offense that he has driven singlehandedly many nights.

Whoever the Predators trade, they need to keep enough of a team to build around. Dante Fabbro can be part of that, and so can Eeli Tolvanen and other young players given time to find their footing with the talent on the Preds’ current roster. Getting rid of everything and dropping players from the CHL or the AHL in cold, though, isn’t going to work out as well.

There’s another risk factor here: while the Predators can’t (and shouldn’t) let fan reactions drive their decision-making, the Sabres are in a market where ponds freeze hard every winter and generations of kids have grown up watching hockey. The Preds have made spectacular progress making their part of the South a hockey community, but it’s still an ongoing project. If they’re able to hold on to a few core players while still getting the assets they need back, that will help with fan engagement and retention.

Definitely don’t trade players for nothing.

One of the worst moves the Sabres pulled recently—again pressured by ownership—was trading Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues for well below his real value so that they wouldn’t have to pay his signing bonus.

If the Predators decide to trade core players with term, they need to do everything they can to maximize the value of the return. That means Poile needs to get as much back for the good players he’s trading as the other GM will allow, with an emphasis on talented prospects and high draft picks. If doing something like retaining salary on a contract for a player with a year or two left will get even more in return, and if the Preds have the cap space, he should consider that too.

Don’t mess up the draft.

Once you have the draft picks, you have to use them. This one’s harder. If drafting were easy, nobody would have to work at it.

But while the Predators have found several late-round gems in the past, they’ve also had some picks that seemed questionable and didn’t pan out. And then there was their 2020 draft, with a baffling focus on adequate overagers.

If the Predators are looking to rebuild through the draft, they need to do everything they can to get back to the methods that allowed them to get overlooked difference-makers into the organization.

A rebuild is not an overnight process.

This offseason’s promised “youth movement” rapidly turned into signing a bunch of okay free agents, and re-signing Mikael Granlund.

Players like Mark Borowiecki, Matt Benning, Ben Harpur, and Luca Sbisa (a waiver claim) are not going to be with the Predators long-term. Jérémy Davies, the mysterious Frédéric Allard, and Alexandre Carrier very well could be. Allard hasn’t even gotten a chance at the NHL yet, even when the veteran players have struggled. Similarly, forwards like Erik Haula and Brad Richardson—and Granlund, good as he’s been—aren’t going to be here for long; why not give that icetime from the start to players like Tolvanen and Rem Pitlick, who have made it in because of injuries, or Philip Tomasino, who still hasn’t?

It’s tempting to try to gear up and go for it. I get that. But if the Predators are rebuilding, they need to refrain from making those short-term band-aid signings and commit to getting as much as possible out of their prospects—both the ones they have now and the ones they need to focus on getting via trades.