Jerry Sullivan: In Buffalo's race to the playoffs, do Sabres still have edge on Bills? - The Buffalo News

Share this article

print logo

Jerry Sullivan: In Buffalo's race to the playoffs, do Sabres still have edge on Bills?

In recent years, people have often asked me, "Who do you think will get back to the playoffs first, the Bills or the Sabres?"

Generally, I fumble for a response. Predicting success for either team is an Olympian leap of faith. It's a lot easier to talk about how long it has been since Buffalo's two major sports franchises have been in the playoffs.

The Bills have missed the NFL playoffs 17 years in a row, the longest drought of the 123 teams in the four major pro sports. The Sabres have the second-longest playoff drought in the NHL at six seasons, second only to the Carolina Hurricanes.

That's small consolation to Buffalo fans who are still bitter about the 'Canes beating the Sabres in the 2006 conference finals when a superior Sabres team was undone by a rash of injuries to its defense.

So in a real sense, Buffalo is the most distressed sports city in America. And while the Bills' drought began well before Terry and Kim Pegula came to town, the teams have traveled along parallel tracks of woe and dysfunction since they bought the Sabres six years ago.

The Pegulas kept the Bills in Buffalo, brought renewed hope to Buffalo and have been at the forefront of a civic revival. But they've often seemed out of their depth as they've stumbled to inspire the Bills and Sabres to a similar resurgence.

The parallels are unmistakable, beginning with Terry Pegula crying at the sight of Gil Perreault on his first day as Sabres owner. Pegula did the same thing at his introductory news conference after buying the Bills. He broke down right away when he mentioned the fans and the team's history.

Fans have often wanted to cry in the intervening years. You could make the argument that both franchises reached their lowest point under Pegula: The Sabres when they tanked for a high draft pick and the Bills when they became a national joke after the Rex Ryan firing.

Pegula showed undue faith in both management teams he inherited, deepening the dysfunction and delaying change. He allowed Darcy Regier to remain Sabres GM long past his time. He did likewise with Doug Whaley. He stubbornly gave both contract extensions despite their failures.

With both teams, Pegula looked outside for advice. He hired Pat LaFontaine as Sabres president, only to see the former Sabres star leave because of a clash with upper management. He sought help for the Bills from Bill Polian but never followed through on the idea of a football czar.

He hired Tim Murray as Sabres GM. Murray shared some of the same traits as Whaley. He was flamboyant, unafraid of making the big deal, a lover of the big splash. Both were men about town, the type of executives who would be photographed at a local bar days after they had both been fired.

Both franchises were guilty of spending Pegula's billions in a careless fashion. The Sabres overpaid for Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino. The Bills gave Marcell Dareus a $100 million contract extension despite multiple off-field indiscretions and overpaid for Charles Clay.

Desperate for renewed relevance, Pegula went for big-name head coaches in Ryan and Dan Bylsma, only to find that their methods weren't suited for today's game and that they had lost touch with players. Again, the splash far exceeded the reward.

The big difference is that the Sabres had adopted a full tank, stripping down the roster to lose big and guaranteeing a shot at either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. They settled for Eichel, which reminds us that in addition to mismanagement, the Buffalo teams haven't been very lucky.

The Bills decided against an all-out tank this season. Maybe Pegula felt fans couldn't stomach another overt losing campaign. Or perhaps it's because he gave unprecedented control to his new coach, Sean McDermott, whose team has since lived up to his belief that they could win in the short term while laying a foundation for the future.

Still, the more the teams lost, the greater the capacity for fans to believe. People moved quickly from outrage to acceptance and blind faith, a willingness to see epic failure under the Pegulas as a grand strategy.

At last, their faith might be justified. The parallels continue, as both teams have a promising first-year coach and general manager who have lifted the hopes of their fan bases by demonstrating a base level of competence and vision that was often absent in the past.

The Pegulas handed control of both franchises to young, buttoned-down general managers who seem to understand what it takes to win in today's world. Brandon Beane and Jason Botterill aren't glorified scouts but versatile front-office guys schooled in analytics and long-range planning.

Beane brought in Brian Gaine, who had been up for the Bills' GM job, to run player personnel. He stole Joe Schoen from Miami to be his assistant general manager. Maybe what the Bills really needed was a bunch of mini-czars.

Botterill, who was born two months before Beane, has an MBA from Michigan. Like Beane, he spent more than a decade with a successful organization. He was associate GM of the Penguins. Before that, he was head of hockey administration, where he handled the salary cap.

His first move was hiring Randy Sexton to be GM of the Amerks. Botterill knows that an NHL team is only as strong as its minor-league affiliate, a strong feeder program that prepares kids to win, the way it did before the heady days of 2005-07.

Both teams are led by first-year coaches who were respected in their sports and brought a fresh perspective to defense: Sean McDermott and Phil Housley. Both McDermott and Housley paid a lot of dues. They seem more in tune with today's player than the men who preceded them. McDermott's guys seem totally bought in.

Of course, it all comes down to talent. There's such optimism about the new regimes, you'd think it was guys in suits who scored the TDs and goals. But the early signs are encouraging with the Bills, who are in first place in the AFC East after a stunning upset in Atlanta and have a potential defensive rookie of the year in Tre'Davious White.

McDermott talks about building a foundation, and he's off to a good start. The Sabres have theirs in Eichel, but he's only one guy. He plays a third of the time. Soon, he'll be the highest-paid player in franchise history. There will be high expectations and consequences as Botterill juggles salaries to manage his roster.

The fact is, the Sabres should be further along after tanking. Fans have a tendency to forget that other teams improve, too. Other young teams, like the Maple Leafs, have surged past the Sabres. The conference is highly competitive; few experts are picking them to make the playoffs.

A month ago, I would have said the Sabres were in better shape than the Bills, who still lack depth and a true franchise quarterback. But their surprising first quarter has them in solid position to make a run at a playoff spot that virtually no one saw coming before the season, especially after the Sammy Watkins trade.

Suddenly, it's the Bills who seem poised to break through. That's how it goes with these franchises: The Bills are close with Ryan; no it's the Sabres with Eichel; no wait, it's the Bills who have everyone's hope rising.

The best thing for Buffalo fans is not to get overly optimistic and leave room for surprise. That way, your heart doesn't get broken as often. But the Bills' hot start has people's hopes soaring again. It looks like they're capable of making a playoff run this season. Then again, the Sabres shouldn't be that far off this year, either.

Two parallel franchises, stumbling along and teasing their fans into renewed belief. Wouldn't it be fitting if they both got back to the playoffs at the same time? This year, maybe? Someone, yank me off the stage.

There are no comments - be the first to comment