I've spent most of a very short summer searching for a theme for the 1999-2000 hockey season. Maybe we should just settle for something simple, like: "Patience."
Patience isn't very popular in Western New York, what with our almost desperate desire for any sort of title. But it's what hockey fans in Western New York need most right now.
There's a school of thought -- brought about largely by the fact Dominik Hasek has opted to make this season his last -- that the Sabres must win the Stanley Cup this season or die trying. In pro sports, "die trying" usually means going all out, mortgaging the future for the present, making whatever trades necessary to "win now."
It's a concept that is not without merit. Used in the right way by the right team and in the right situation, it can be effective (the 1994 New York Rangers come immediately to mind). Done poorly, it's a prescription for disaster (see the Vancouver Canucks since their '94 loss to those Rangers).
For the Buffalo Sabres, it has to be tempting to win at all costs, but it's also wrong. They deserve more than a one-shot deal.
This is a very good Sabres team enjoying the fruits of some good management. Darcy Regier and company may have inherited the nucleus, but they've added to it. They've positioned the Sabres for success now and for years to come. Years that don't include Hasek.
This is not to say ownership and management shouldn't do everything prudent to push the current edition of the team over the top. A judicious trade here, a loosening of the purse strings there is not only reasonable, it's to be expected. But mortgaging the future would be a mistake.
The theory the Sabres can't win a Stanley Cup without Hasek is viable, but every bit as intriguing is the reality they haven't been able to win one with him.
It's reasonable to assume a team with a core that includes Michael Peca, Miroslav Satan, Vaclav Varada, Curtis Brown, Jay McKee, Alexei Zhitnik, Eric Rasmussen, and Rhett Warrener is going to remain good for at least a few more seasons. It's also reasonable to assume they could get better both on their own and with the addition (and maturation) of players such as Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Cory Sarich, Maxim Afinogenov, David Moravec and last season's minor league player of the year, goaltender Martin Biron.
Those players are a tribute to Don Luce, the Sabres' director of player personnel, and some good scouting, drafting and player development over the last few years by everyone involved. To deal the bulk of them away for a one-shot deal to win the Cup under a deadline that Hasek created would be a mistake, a particularly nagging mistake if the Sabres were to make such a move and fall short.
Though the team was designed to be at its peak right now, the Sabres are in this allegedly "critical" situation because Hasek opted to put them there. He signed a contract to play this season, next season and, at the club's option, the season after that. The Sabres entered into that agreement assuming Hasek would honor its terms. That gave them reason to believe they had enough time for the current core of players -- and some of the new ones -- to continue to improve.
It also gave the Sabres reasonable time to make a decision on just how good Biron might be and whether a fading Hasek might someday be traded. Those are important issues. The Sabres counted on giving Biron time to develop not just as the potential heir apparent, but as the fully developed heir apparent.
It used to be a team traded its future for a chance at winning in the present. Not any more. Small-market teams need to hold onto prospects, develop them and perhaps turn as many as two or three a year into NHL players.
Most teams do that by trading experienced (read: high-priced) veterans for draft picks. It's part of the reason the Sabres took draft picks for Pat LaFontaine, Donald Audette and even Yuri Khmylev. When a player's value goes beyond a club's need and/or ability to play (read: Theo Fleury), a draft pick, prospect or developing pro is the way to go.
That Hasek opted to back out of his deal -- no matter how noble his reasons -- clearly disrupted a portion of the Sabres' long-term plan. In cutting short his contractual obligation to the club, Hasek has put pressure on the Sabres to speed up the process so that he might win a Cup in the time frame he deems appropriate.
If the opportunity to make the right move comes along, by all means the Sabres should take it. But they shouldn't sell out the future for one shot to appease one player.
Besides, given Hasek's competitive instincts, he just might rethink his decision regarding retirement.
He wants a Cup as badly as anyone who has ever played or worked for the Sabres. If the team continues to get better, he may want to be a part of its future instead of its past. Exercising some patience might be the only way the Sabres will ever know.