It has been a long decade for the Buffalo Sabres.
It doesn’t seem to matter who the players are, what the division alignment is, or what the playoff format looks like, the one constant is the Buffalo Sabres’ inability to find success. This 2020-21 NHL season has once again followed that trend, despite the team being very active in the offseason.
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Eric Staal was acquired from the Minnesota Wild and Taylor Hall was signed to a one-year, $8 million deal in Free Agency, yet with the temporary division realignment, the Sabres were immediately viewed as a basement dweller in a stacked East Division. While that is simply a tough break for a team that could have been relevant in another division, Buffalo has shown no sign of proving people wrong this season.
Following Thursday’s 4-3 Overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils, the Sabres sit at 6-8-3 on the year, which is last in the East Division and 29th in the NHL. The season did not start poorly, but the club missed the first two weeks of February with COVID-19 issues, and has gone 2-4-1 since returning to play.
Now, I know that this division is tough, but even the New Jersey Devils, one of the most underwhelming teams in 2019-20, have found a way to scoop up some wins (7-6-2, sixth in division).
I’m not asking for Buffalo to miraculously make the playoffs, because again, the odds are stacked against them this year. However, you have to start taking steps forward at some point. The Sabres have not won in the postseason since 2007, and they haven’t even reached the playoffs since 2011. In fact, Buffalo has failed to earn a point per game in the standings each season since 2013 (48 points in 48 games).
The Buffalo Sabres need to fully commit to a rebuild
Personally, I thought that the moves to add Staal and Hall to the equation this year were poor decisions, because I viewed this team as one that should already be in a rebuild. As someone who has really only been around hockey for the last 12 years or so, Buffalo has always seemed like a rebuilding team, even when it was adding players instead of trading them away.
Now, with the continued struggles, and only 12 players under contract beyond this season, the Sabres should officially rebuild. To some degree, they will have to rebuild the team anyway due to the lack of players under contract, so this is the perfect opportunity to blow things up and start over.
We are in an era of tremendous balance at the top of the league. There are so many teams that legitimately have an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup this year, and that is fantastic for hockey fans. For teams like the Sabres, though, that have underachieved for years, that makes it really difficult to gain ground.
The New York Rangers are a perfect example of that, as they were expected to be more competitive this year, yet find themselves near the bottom of the East. This is another reason to take a step back, rebuild, and be ready to contend when teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, and Boston Bruins inevitably fall victim to Father Time.
To be clear, when I say start from scratch, I really mean start from scratch, and that includes Jack Eichel. On the year, Eichel has two goals and 12 assists for 14 points in his 16 games played. In his career, he has recorded 351 points (139 G, 212 A) in 370 games. Clearly Eichel is not part of the problem, but in his five-and-a-half seasons, has he proven to be part of the solution?
If Buffalo holds on to him and rebuilds around him, he’s going to be in his late 20s before you truly expect him to help lead you to a championship. I would want a larger window for my best player to compete for a Stanley Cup.
Between the lack of success, the lack of contracts beyond 2021, and the bad contracts beyond 2021, like Kyle Okposo (12 GP, one point, three years and $18 million left on his contract) and Jeff Skinner (14 GP, one point, seven years and $63 million left on his contract), there just isn’t much going for this team.
Trading players that have value like Eichel, Staal, Hall, and more will be the best solution for the Sabres. Just think, if they keep Eichel and lose the other two for nothing at the end of the year, you are left with a bad team, without its best players, and with no additional Draft capital.
It is disappointing to see any team struggle for as long as the Sabres have. At this point, all of the signs point to a restart, and unless something turns around in a hurry, I don’t see a path forward for the Buffalo Sabres that doesn’t include a rebuild.