For a die-hard Buffalo Sabres fan living in the hockey mad metropolis of Edmonton, Alberta…it couldn’t have gotten much worse than April 18th, 2015.
I figured suffering through back-to-back seasons of utter ineptitude resulting in two straight 30th place finishes…and knowing full well I would witness the Sabres also lose out on the 1st overall pick in the NHL entry draft for a second straight year…was as bad as it could get. My only saving grace was the fact that the Sabres were going to land future superstar, Jack Eichel. While the hometown Oilers would have to be content with what was left in the number 4 or 5 spot.
As the Draft Lottery got underway I said a quick prayer, “please Lord, don’t let it be the Oilers”. I didn't think I could handle the smug looks on all my friends faces. True story, Oiler fans think they are the absolute authority on all things hockey.
It honestly didn’t really even cross my mind that Connor McDavid could ACTUALLY land in Edmonton. This was going to finally be my time to bask in hockey glory. But when I saw the stoic expression on NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s face change the moment he unwrapped the Oilers cardboard logo…sheer panic pulsed through my body. The panic turned to absolute horror mere seconds later, when all doubt was removed...and the Oilers were handed yet another gift. I immediately turned off the TV, walked up to my bedroom, threw my phone across the room, turned out the lights, and tried to go to sleep...at 6:15 pm.
I hate hockey.
Everywhere I went I was met with either the fake "oh man...I feel bad for you...I honestly thought of you the moment the Oilers won the lottery" (give me a break) or "see...you should stop wasting your time cheering for those losers...McDavid baby!". And on and on and on.
It was impossible to ignore, as all around me a city erupted in jubilant, giddy, totally undeserving celebration…while I wallowed in self-pity…questioning over and over how it is that the game of hockey can cause me so much misery.
Now…almost two months later…I have gotten over the disappointment.
More than that.
I am excited about what the future holds for the Buffalo Sabres. McDavid will be amazing in Edmonton. But what the Sabres are quietly building out there in Buffalo...I don’t think it can stay quiet for long.
Three Stanley Cups in six years. The Chicago Blackhawks are as close to a dynasty as we might ever witness in the modern day, 30-team, salary-cap NHL. And while they’ve become a staple at the top of the NHL over the last seven years (twice losing in the Conference Finals, and twice losing in the first round to go with their three championships), the 10 years prior were borderline Oiler-bad.
From 1997/98 – 2007/08 the Chicago Blackhawks qualified for the NHL post-season exactly once, and won…exactly one playoff game (STL took the series 4-1, CHI was shut out in three of the five games). One playoff win in 10 seasons!
Despite finishing out of the playoffs, which translated to higher draft picks, the Blackhawks really only hit on three picks from 1997-2001:
• Dan Cleary, (41 games and 9 points with CHI) who did most of his damage with rival Detroit.
• Tuomo Ruttu, who did most of his damage with the Carolina Hurricanes.
• Craig Anderson, who suited up for 56 games with the ‘Hawks, winning just 12…before become a steady, well-travelled NHL netminder.
It wasn’t until the draft of 2002 that the Blackhawks started the process of morphing into the dynasty that they are today. The first significant piece grabbed came via that year’s 54th pick, Duncan Keith. Keith wouldn’t even step on the ice for the Hawks until the fall of 2005, but steadily progressed into the elite talent that he now is.
The ’03 draft yielded Brent Seabrook (14), Corey Crawford (52) and Dustin Byfuglien (245).
In 2004, it was Bolland (32), Bickell (41) and Brouwer (214).
2005, Hjalmarsson (108).
2006 and 2007 were the big ones, as first came Toews (3) followed by Kane (1). And voila, a dynasty was born.
Toews returned to college after his draft year, setting the stage for both himself and Kane to make their debuts in the 2007/08 season. After finishing 17th, 29th, 28th and 26th in the seasons leading up to the duo’s debut, the Hawks managed a respectable 20th place finish, missing the playoffs by 3 points.
The following year they jumped 16 points in the standings, finishing 6th overall, and advancing all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
A year later, a 3rd overall finish in the standings helped pave the way to their first of three Stanley Cups.
As a Sabres fan looking at this progression, the parallels that can be drawn between the ‘Hawks and Sabres are inspiring.
In the four drafts prior to the Toews draft, the Blackhawks had drafted Keith, Seabrook, Byfuglien, and Hjalmarsson on the back end, Bolland, Bickell, and Brouwer up front, and Crawford in net. Crawford and Bickell played no role in the initial Stanley Cup Championship.
When I look at the Buffalo Sabres, I wouldn’t consider it a stretch to consider Sam Reinhart our Jonathan Toews. I don’t foresee Reinhart to be an elite offensive producer, nor do I consider Toews to be offensively elite. Reinhart has been described as a cerebral player who does all the little things right, and makes the players around him better. Not carbon copies by any means…but a pretty good comparison none-the-less.
If Reinhart is our Toews, than Jack Eichel becomes our Patrick Kane. The early prognosis is that we can expect Eichel to be even better than Kane. Again, different types of players…but impact-wise not far-fetched to think Reinhart/Eichel can at least equal Toews/Kane.
So if that’s our starting point, let’s look back on the Sabres last four drafts.
2010 brought Mark Pysyk (23). Don’t sleep on Pysyk. He’s been caught up in a numbers game to this point, but the kid can play. Mark my words (pardon the pun), he’ll be a legit top-4 defenseman in the NHL for years to come. For comparisons sake, look at Hjalmarsson. Drafted in 2005, Hjalmarsson didn’t reach the NHL until 2007, when he played just 13 games while recording 1 point. The following year, 21 games yielded 3 points. In the cup year of 2009-10, Hjalmarsson played 77 games, registering 17 points. He’s been an integral part of all three cup runs for the ‘Hawks. Pysyk, drafted in 2010, first hit the league in 2012-13…19 games 5 points. The following year, 44 games for 7 points. Last year, Pysyk only played in 7 recording 3 points, but was battling injuries.
The 2011 draft was a bust.
2012 saw the Sabres grab the much maligned Mikhail Grigorenko (12), steal of the draft Zemgus Girgensons (14), and former American U20 captain, Jake McCabe. Girgensons is already a franchise cornerstone. McCabe is receiving rave reviews in Rochester, while Grigorenko’s efforts have been well-documented, I for one, am not prepared to throw in the towel on this guy. Some players just need more time. The kid is 21 years old. All is not lost.
In 2013 the Sabres were blessed with the twin towers. Quiet and steady Rasmus Ristolainen (8) is almost a sure-fire top-pairing dman who could develop into an NHL elite (hello Brent Seabrook?). Nikita Zadorov (16) is the much more noticeable of the two. Loves to throw his body around, and has a lot of untapped offensive potential (Dustin Byfuglien?). With a handful of second and third rounders (35-JT Compher, 38-Connor Hurley, 52-Justin Bailey, 69-Nick Baptiste) yet to reach their potential, one could bank on at least one from that quartet panning out.
The Sabres have a stockpiled a number of other key pieces through prior drafts and trades who come in at 25 years of age or younger. Tyler Ennis (25), Cody Hodgson (25), Chad Rudwedel (25), Zach Bogosien (24), Nicholas Deslauriers (24), Evander Kane (23), Marcus Foligno (23), Johan Larsson (22), William Carrier (20), Hudson Fasching (19), Eric Cornel (19) and goaltenders Andrey Makarov (22) and Linus Ullmark (21).
The constants in the three cup runs for the Blackhawks were Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and plug in the rest. The Sabres will have their cornerstones in place with Eichel, Reinhart, Girgensons, Kane, Ennis, Bogosien, Ristolainen, Zadorov, and Pysyk.
I would expect a similar progression for the Sabres. A noticeable improvement this season (having legitimate #1 and 2 centers in place goes a long ways in allowing the rest of the team to play in their proper place) but no playoffs…as experience needs to be gained. A playoff berth by 2016-17.
After that…it’s only a matter of time...