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Bucky Gleason: Sabres feeling lingering effects of failed master plan

No need to worry Wednesday if you happen to miss Jason Botterill's first postmortem news conference as a general manager. You know the drill. The GM conducts a gripping Q&A that enables him to say the Sabres fell short of their goal before he suggests better days are ahead.

Buffalo has missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons under three GMs and five coaches. The Sabres finished last in the NHL for the third time in five years and in the division basement for the fifth time in six years. They lost 45 games in regulation, third-most in franchise history.

Rest assured better days are ahead, if only because they can't get much worse than the present day. At least that's what you thought a few years ago while they tanked in back-to-back seasons. They were actually trying to win this year and still finished 31st in the NHL, extending the second-longest current playoff drought, behind Carolina.

The Sabres have become a reflection of their ownership, the one constant in this whole unsightly mess. They're a bewildered and largely irrelevant franchise that has wandered around during the Pegulas' stewardship with no real idea of what they're doing or where they're going while searching for a quick fix.

Ryan O'Reilly startled the masses Monday when he acknowledged that he came to accept losing. If there was anything shocking about his comments, it was his honesty with the public. But nobody should have been surprised that he felt that way. It's been rampant for years inside the organization, par for the course the Sabres are about to play.

It's important to know O'Reilly, an alternate captain, once was among the most principled and passionate players in hockey. He was acquired because he was an honest player, a gamer who cared more about the team than his paycheck. If the culture in Buffalo poisoned him, imagine the damage it inflicted upon the rest of their sorry brigade.

Sabres' Ryan O'Reilly says he lost love of game, lacked mental toughness

O'Reilly even admitted there were times he lost his love for the game, which made me wonder: How many fans lost their love for his team?

This is what happens when an organization not only accepts losing but encourages losing. It goes back to the tank, an idiotic master plan commissioned by the owners and embraced by a vast majority of Buffalo fans who had no better solution. People either never fully considered or flatly ignored long-term effects of a failed strategy that still linger.

Three years ago, delusional apologists believed the Sabres would reach the postseason in short order even though reality pointed toward the opposite. Hockey is the ultimate team sport. There are neither shortcuts nor saviors. Finishing near the bottom over the course of several seasons only makes the ladder that much harder to climb.

And yet they believed no matter the math. In basketball, you can acquire a difference-maker and turn around a franchise with a few solid moves. LeBron James had a profound impact because he's on the court for 40 minutes per night. In baseball, one pitcher can be the difference between 80 and 100 wins.

Anyone need a recap on the importance of a quality quarterback?

In hockey, the best forwards sit the bench for roughly two-thirds of the game. Too many people pointed toward the Blackhawks' success with world-class players Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews as examples of success without accounting for other factors, such as premier defensemen, goaltending, chemistry, depth and coaching.

The Blackhawks missed the playoffs this season with Kane and Toews, in part because five players account for about 65 percent of their payroll. Edmonton has an elite player in Connor McDavid, a collection of terrific young players and a very good coach in Todd McLellan and has missed the playoffs twice in three years.

Housley vows to get second season behind Sabres' bench off to better start

FYI: Winning is hard in the NHL under the best conditions. It’s considerably tougher when starting from the bottom. There are dozens of reasons why teams shouldn't tank. Many stretch well beyond the hallucination that one great player will come to the rescue and lead his team to the Promised Land.

Remember, the Sabres initially were torn to the studs with their eye on McDavid, even though they had only a 20 percent chance of getting him. The idea they would draft a "generational player" either way came later, when people realized Jack Eichel also had the potential to become a star.

Eichel is a fantastic young player who has shown signs of blossoming into an elite center and maturing into a leader. You have your franchise player. He came at the expense of common sense, a price much higher than dollars and cents. The Sabres needed him and McDavid and Eichel and O'Reilly and more.

Tim Murray was ripped royally in Buffalo, and rightfully so. He was hired as the general manager in title only as part of a front-office team that was blown to pieces before taking shape. He was out of his element as a GM. He came across more like a character from "Family Guy" than a respected NHL executive.

Tanking led to losing, which led to recruiting problems, which led to him overpaying for players. He overpaid free agents to draw them to Buffalo and overpaid in trades because better teams had more leverage.

Desperation, rather than inept evaluation, led to the Sabres getting poor value from personnel moves. That's what losing does. Hockey is littered with bad decisions. Look at any team's draft history. But failure was inevitable for the Sabres in particular because they had less room for error.

O'Reilly's production with the Sabres has been consistent with his time in Colorado, but it doesn't add up to $7.5 million per season. Kyle Okposo's contract is out of whack. Murray overpaid in the trade for Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian. Let's not forget about Matt Moulson and other overpaid players and bad trades.

It also doesn't matter that most players on Buffalo's roster today didn't experience the tank. They still joined a culture in which losing was met with little or no repercussions. It was a matter of time before players became numb to defeat, felt entitled to their paychecks and started going through the motions.

Add a rookie GM and rookie coach, and it was a blueprint for last place. If too many losses pile up, players practically forget how to win.

It's easy for Buffalo fans to point toward a team such as Colorado, which finished last in the NHL in 2016-17 and reached the playoffs this year, as a source of hope. It's easy to forget that last year, when the Avalanche finished with 48 points, was more an aberration than the 47-point leap they made this year.

The Avs entered this season four years removed from the third-best record in the NHL. In the two seasons before last year, they were 78-70-16. They failed to make the playoffs out of the ultra-competitive Central Division with Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago and Nashville. Colorado's best players didn’t accept losing.

Buffalo's did.

And that leads me to today. Once again, the Sabres are back at the bottom. How long they remain there will depend on how the general manager performs his duties in the months and years ahead. We'll see what Botterill says Wednesday. If he sounds like other GMs before him, you can expect the same results.

 

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