Buffalo Sabres: Why Tanking Doesn’t Always Work

Photo by Rob Marczynski/NHLI via Getty Images
Photo by Rob Marczynski/NHLI via Getty Images /

As teams prepare to tank for Jack Hughes, the Buffalo Sabres are a reminder that all tanking doesn’t end well. 

NFL coach Vince Lombardi was famous for telling his players “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”. Somewhere over the years, those words got lost in translation. Teams have learned to embrace losing, calling it the much more drastic “tanking” by purposely sacrificing their season for the hope of a better draft pick. But tanking doesn’t always have a happy ending. Enter the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres aimed to build a roster engineered by tanking and trades, and they have nothing to show for it years later. Buffalo hasn’t seen the NHL Playoffs since 2011. By 2013/2014 management knew something had to change. With that, team mainstays like Vezina winner Ryan Miller were shipped off for picks while the team and their fans began to set their sights toward the historically 2015 NHL draft.

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With the league’s worst record, Buffalo was guaranteed a shot at either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, both generational talents and franchise-altering players. It was an open secret throughout the NHL that Buffalo was tanking for McDavid or Eichel, and their fans were 100% in on the joke.

Buffalo walked away with Eichel and assumed things would automatically get better from there, but they didn’t. Instead, they assembled productive assets to build around Eichel, with no regard for chemistry or team performance. Most of the 2015-2018 Sabres players and personnel were people who were expected to work out, but didn’t.

They brought in Dan Bylsma as head coach, a Stanley Cup winner who presided over the Penguins Eastern Conference dominance. Surely a coach of his caliber would lead the Sabres back to the promise land? Nope. Bylsma never won over his own locker room, leading to rumors of conflict between him and crown jewel Eichel. And then there’s this little infamous gem from WGR 550’s Paul Hamilton.

"Inside sources have told me that Eichel has no desire to sign a contract extension this summer if Bylsma remains the coach, so quite a bit hinges on this meeting."

Bylsma was fired after the 2016-2017 season. The failure to find an effective head coach for the group in no doubt set the rebuilding process back several years.

Then there’s former Avalanche center Ryan O’Reilly acquired via trade in 2015. The Sabres and O’Reilly felt like they were such a great match they put ink to a seven-year contract extension. Three years after acquiring him, he was shipped off to St. Louis for a different home blue jersey.

Evander Kane, known more for his off-ice immaturity rather than his star potential, was shipped over via trade. The rebuilding Sabres seemed like the perfect place for Kane to grow up and finally morph into the player he was expected to be.

To his credit, he did have strong statistics in a Sabres uniform, but his success was never matched by his team in the standings. He was later flipped over to San Jose where he continued to thrive and become the player the Jets and Sabres hoped he’d be.

Namely, they built a collection, not a team.

Tanking, while no exactly ethical in the name of the game, can be effective. It only works if the team has a plan and a goal. To steal the 76ers line, it’s a process, not a sprint. If you’re rebuilding, you have to take time to build brick by brick, not by rushing in with the best materials available and hoping for it to figure it out on it’s own.

Any successful teams feed off each other and works off each other. One of the key reasons that the Penguins “tanking” paid off is because the assets they acquired and built with (Malkin, Crosby and Fleury) worked together in a perfect combination. The Sabres dealt with each position separately and isolated one decision from the other. That was a recipe for underperformance at best. Without team chemistry, there can be no team success.

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2018-2019 looks different and brighter. The Sabres find themselves on the playoff bubble, which is reason for hope. But for all those Sabres fans who prematurely bought Connor McDavid jersey during the summer of 2013, it might be too little too late.