Why the Buffalo Sabres can’t get off the mat

Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (9). Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (9). Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports /

Just what is going on with the Buffalo Sabres?

In the wake of Ralph Krueger’s departure, the Buffalo Sabres are once again back to square one. They are at the bottom of the league, with just 6 wins on the year (and 24 losses). So, why can’t they get things right?

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The most recent iteration of the Buffalo Sabres truly begins in 2015, when star forward Jack Eichel was drafted. At that moment, there was nowhere to go but up.

A quick look over at CapFriendly shows that the Sabres are currently close to the cap. The average age of their team is roughly 26 years. While the team is old enough to be in “win-now” mode, they are once again in contention for the 2021 Lottery pick.

One step forward, two steps back for the Buffalo Sabres

Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner are the only long-term deals.

It’s tempting to look at the Skinner deal as the source of the Sabres’ woe. Since signing an eight year, $72 million contract in 2019, he has scored just 17 goals in 86 games, and is -31. There are six more years left on the deal. The General Manager who signed that contract is no longer with the team.

But at the moment, that cap hit isn’t really standing in the way of anything. At the end of this season, Sabres management will have six Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) to sign. Eleven of their current players will enter Unrestricted Free Agency (as UFAs).

With so much cap space freeing up, the Sabres actually have a lot of flexibility. And there are a number of big names entering Free Agency this year. The only problem is that in a cap world, teams can’t bail themselves out with Free Agents. The only sure path to success is through good drafting, solid prospect development, and team-friendly RFA deals.

So the first test for the Sabres begins this offseason, when they sign four key RFAs – Sam Reinhart, Casey Middlestadt, Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju. The majority of the UFAs were short-term buys. Players like Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Tobias Reider and Riley Sheahan are unlikely to re-sign.

So that leaves the Sabres with an empty tank. They will need to pursue a number of UFAs in the offseason just to fill their lineup. This speaks to an issue with organizational depth. The Sabres’ drafting has come under fire several times, from both inside the organization and out. They cleaned out their scouting staff in both 2017 and 2020.

For a great rundown on the success rate of draft picks, check this excellent article at dobberprospects.com. Each year, a team should get two NHL players on average. So after five years, we should see ten NHL players on a team.  Since the average NHL career is 200 games, the turnover should be roughly consistent. An NHL team with average success in the draft should have about ten players they drafted that are 25 to 30-years-old.

Looking at the current roster, the Sabres currently have just two forwards and two defenders who are in that 25-30 range. In other words, the drafting that came before Eichel was clearly below average. To be fair to the 2017 and 2020 iterations of the scouting staff, they can hardly be criticized for picks they made just three years ago, or less.

Instead, that turnover speaks to a larger problem.

Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo Sabres. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images) /

Beware the revolving door

An NHL hockey team is a business. And in any business, high turnover is a clear symptom of toxic organizations. The Sabres were one of the premier teams in the NHL in 2007, when they won the President’s Trophy. That was an exciting team to watch. They rolled four lines of fast, skilled, high scoring players. They had one of the league’s elite offensive-defensemen in Brian Campbell. And they had world-class goaltending in Ryan Miller.

But after Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left to Free Agency, it slowly came apart. By 2009, the team was in a free fall. All of their good players had turned the corner. And one by one, they all departed to Free Agency.

Even though the team was turning over, the front office remained  a model of consistency. From 1997 to 2013, the Sabres only had one General Manager (Darcy Regier) and one Head Coach (Lindy Ruff). But in the last eight years, there have been six coaches and three GMs.

In other words, the team is in constant turmoil, both on the ice and off.  The Sabres organization needs more than repairs, or some new parts  – they need a full blown, top to bottom overhaul.

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What’s next

Since Terry Pegula purchased the Sabres in 2011, the only constant has been Terry Pegula. And after several re-organizations, there’s simply no one else left to be held accountable. The problems started long before Terry’s wife Kim assumed the role as the Buffalo Sabres’ president. She is fact, the fourth team president since they purchased the team. But when the accountability falls squarely on the owner, it isn’t a good look.