Better luck next year: The Buffalo Sabres are back
It has taken more than a decade, but they finally have something here.
Welcome to Better Luck Next Season. As each NHL team gets eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoff contention, and then the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we will take a look at what went wrong, what went right, and what sits ahead for them. The Buffalo Sabres are the 13th team on our list and I am here to tell you they are most definitely BACK.
Even though the Buffalo Sabres playoff drought officially reached 12 years this season, they have finally given their fans reason to believe better days are ahead.
The 2022-23 season was their first winning record in more than a decade, the closest they have actually come to a playoff spot since 2012, and they have quietly assembled one of the most dynamic and exciting young teams in the league that should — SHOULD — still have its best days ahead of it.
When the Sabres started a full-scale rebuild and organizational teardown back in 2013 and 2014 the hope was that it would produce a team bad enough to finish at the top of the draft and them a franchise-altering player in Connor McDavid.
The first part went according to plan.
During the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons the Sabres were as bad as any non-expansion team the NHL had ever seen successfully pulling off one of the most blatant tank jobs in league history. The plan was so obvious that Sabres fans in the arena were actively cheering against their team late in the season.
The second part of the plan did not go according to plan as they lost the draft lottery and watched helplessly as McDavid went to Edmonton. The Sabres still landed a strong consolation prize in Jack Eichel with the No. 2 overall pick. It was not McDavid, but Eichel was still viewed as a potential franchise-changing player that probably would have been a slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick in any other season.
The Sabres tried to add a bunch of veterans around him, made some big trades, hired a former Stanley Cup winning coach in Dan Bylsma and seemed to have something cooking. Problem was, nobody turned on the stove and they were never able to build anything even remotely close to a contender. Eichel had injury issues, his relationship with the team rapidly deteriorated through the losing and disagreements on how to handle his injury, and the entire saga finally ended last year when he was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights, closing off a disastrous era of Sabres hockey.
But while the Eichel drama stole the headlines, the Sabres still had something building in the shadows.
They had two No. 1 overall picks that landed them defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power, Tage Thompson put all of his physical skills and natural talent together into one unstoppable offensive force, and a promising collection of young talent has all come together at the same time.
The Sabres were the third-highest scoring team in the league, eight of their top-10 point producers are 26 or younger, and they might even have a potential franchise goalie ready to make an impact next season.
The playoffs should not just be a goal next season.
They should be the expectation.
What went wrong for the Sabres
Honestly, not much.
This might be one of the few non-playoff teams you can actually say that about, but nobody should have expected this to be a playoff team when the season started.
The fact it got as close as it did is an accomplishment and a sign of real progress.
The one problem area they did have, though, was in net.
Their goaltending stunk.