Though there is a feeling of disappointment in the executive offices of Sabreland, there is also optimism. Team President Ted Black said last week he likes the direction the organization is going under Darcy Regier. On Tuesday, the Sabres' general manager listed myriad items that make him feel good about getting another season in Buffalo.
Regier likes the in-season and offseason additions to the roster. He thinks Lindy Ruff's coaching continues to improve. He enjoys the flexibility he has regarding the NHL draft. He views criticisms leveled by some players on locker cleanout day as positives. Even the team's failure to make the playoffs in three of the last five seasons took on an optimistic spin.
"I agree we have missed the playoffs in three of the five years," Regier said by phone. "We've also made it in two of the last three. I framed it in the best way, you framed it in the worst way."
Framed another way, the Sabres are 0 for 1 in making the playoffs. The organization will spend the offseason trying to make sure it doesn't go 0 for 2 (or, looking back, 2 for 6 and 4 for 11).
"We have to compete harder," Regier said. "That's a big statement, and it covers off individual play. It covers off the coaching staff. It covers off what I have to do as a general manager to help create that.
"I can tell you that Terry [Pegula] has set the tone as an owner. It's a focus for our organization. I think those are the types of things you're going to see over the offseason. You're going to see improvements when we come back in the fall. We expect to be a much more competitive hockey team."
So how do they get there? The first step, Regier said, is to increase the team's competitiveness. It was questioned throughout the season and was cemented when the players admitted to lacking mental toughness.
"It comes back to competing as an organization, as a team, as individual players," Regier said. "It can come in the individuals becoming better, mentally tougher. It can come in the growth of a younger guy to an older guy, which in large part is the same thing. It can come from other players supporting that mind-set from the outside. It can come from players in the minors that have proven that they have that and are ready to play in the National Hockey League.
"I don't think there's a silver bullet. I think it's got to come from a number of different areas."
For the 16th season, it will be up to Regier and Ruff to get the team to improve. Regier feels fortunate to remain an integral part of the organization.
"Since Terry has purchased the team and the tone that he has set for this hockey club, it's been very positive," Regier said. "To be a part of that, I certainly am grateful. I also think that his timeline is shorter, focused on what things we can do now to improve the hockey club, and with the resources backing that I think that's real positive. I do feel very good about being part of that."
Regier said he never wavered in his belief that Ruff should be part of that, too. Both joined the organization in 1997. Regier did not think about firing Ruff as the team struggled.
"No, I did not," Regier said. "The improvement in how we approached the game, how we approached building the team, the growth that I have seen in the coaching staff, led by Lindy, his work ethic and how he is growing, I think he's only going to get better."
Several players, led prominently by Sabres veterans Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek, criticized or discussed Ruff's public evaluation of players as they cleaned out their lockers.
"I took that as a positive," Regier said. "I think that's more of a reflection of the head coach believing in the players' ability to do more and demanding more from the player."
Ruff and Regier took part in a staff meeting Tuesday that included how to proceed during the offseason. The team has flexibility, thanks to its two first- and second-round picks in the June draft.
"I guess, put simply, we're very open on using and/or moving the pick or picks," Regier said.
Regier remains high on restricted free-agent forwards Tyler Ennis and Patrick Kaleta and would like unrestricted defenseman Alexander Sulzer to return.
He also sees Ryan Miller remaining in the Sabres' crease as the team's centerpiece with the rest of the squad to be determined in the months ahead.
"We're going through a process where we're going to evaluate our team, our organization, the depth of our organization." Regier said. "It's premature to say X number of players are going to be traded, X number of players are moving this way or that way. It's work that we have to continue."