There are 32 games left and the Edmonton Oilers have a lot of road trips to make. And the Arizona Coyotes, under the back-room maneuvering of none other than Darcy Regier, have a lot of trades to make.
But I think it’s safe to call it right now. The Buffalo Sabres are the worst team in the NHL by a lot at this point. They’re going to finish 30th and get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
You may call it mission accomplished. But the mission doesn’t need to be an open disgrace.
The Sabres have tanked spectacularly and my feelings on that have been made crystal clear on these pages, so there’s no need to belabor them any more. Seriously now. If the Sabres weren’t tanking, what general manager would ever stand down on a 14-game losing streak or an 0-12 January that will long sit as the worst pointless month in franchise history? But Tim Murray did.
Not a single trade. No big call-ups. No waivers. No sending Andrej Meszaros anywhere else other than on the ice. No firing of Ted Nolan. Nothing. (Memo to Murray: Trade Chris Stewart today. Sell high. He looks better than he has all season).
The Blackhawks never got this bad on their road to glory. Neither did the Kings or the Penguins. Ever. An entire month without a point. Fourteen straight regulation losses. It has the Sabres tied for the fourth-longest run to the abyss in NHL history.
They’re in the territory of the expansion Washington Capitals, who went 8-67-5. And the second-year San Jose Sharks, who were 11-71-2. And two teams that don’t exist anymore in the Philadelphia Quakers and Kansas City Scouts. The record is 17 in a row. Who are they going to beat?
The narrative you hear about all this is not to worry. It will be a different team next year or the year after. That’s true to a point. But let’s run off a list of names in no real order. Try Josh Gorges, Brian Gionta, Zemgus Girgensons, Matt Moulson, Nicolas Deslauriers, Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis. Maybe Cody Hodgson or Brian Flynn. Maybe one of Jhonas Enroth or Michal Neuvirth.
They’re all on the team now. It’s a pretty good bet close to all of them are on it next year, when winning – finally – will become the objective it always should be. A streak this bad, one Stewart called “disgusting” after Friday’s 5-2 loss in Vancouver, certainly is rooted in the organizational mandate of losing-as-winning infecting the dressing room.
But it’s time for some of these guys, whether they’re kids or veterans, to start playing better hockey. They’re not flipping a switch come September. There is no excuse for this to morph into one of the worst teams in the history of the game.
Maybe Murray’s summer additions of Moulson, Gionta and Gorges were simply a ruse for optics in the league office.
Gionta has four goals and took a penalty a rookie shouldn’t take Friday night that led to a Vancouver power-play goal. Gorges reminds me of Craig Rivet, another defenseman who came here after a long career in Montreal and was a clear, consistent voice in the dressing room but had too much mileage on his body.
Moulson is Murray’s first big free agent signee. Five years for $25 million. No goals in the last 15 games and seven for the season. Guess he’s waiting for an 18-year-old to get him the puck. Ennis is making more than $7 million this season and has hit a similar wall with no goals in 18 of his last 21 games. Girgensons’ wall is no goals in 11 of his last 12. Ristolainen suddenly looks lost. Enroth has given up three goals or more in 15 of his last 16 outings. Zadorov needs a better travel agent.
Hodgson needs to go somewhere else, especially now that Nolan healthy-scratched him in his former stomping ground Friday night, but who’s taking that contract? Forget a buyout. The Sabres would have him on their cap through 2023.
When the Sabres went through their 10-3 stretch that had them four points out of a playoff spot in mid-December, they were attacking the net more and producing offense even with low shot totals. And they were getting spectacular goaltending from Enroth. The analytics narrative was that it was an unsustainable combination and that was borne out.
Three of the 10 wins in the streak came with the Sabres getting fewer than 20 shots on goal for the game. They won four times while getting outshot by at least 16. Their last regulation win was 21 games ago, a 4-3 triumph here over Calgary on Dec. 11. The Flames outshot the Sabres that night, 45-19. Not a recipe for long-term success. The Sabres of today are like the group that started the year 3-13-2.
Nolan isn’t playing any real system, the special teams are atrocious and the coach looks like a dead man walking on the bench (timeout at some point, Ted?). Afterward, he’s making veiled references like “these are the 20 guys we have” and “we’ve got who we got.” He’s waiting for Murray to make any move but clearly knows no help will be produced.
It seems hard to think the Sabres can keep Nolan going forward, which isn’t really fair. He probably deserves 30-40 games with McEichel, but my guess is he won’t get it. In the wake of the Pat LaFontaine fiasco, Murray pretty much had to keep Nolan, again for optics.
After a full season, Murray is free to go about bringing in his own guy, perhaps someone like Binghamton Senators coach and longtime former NHL defenseman Luke Richardson. Or maybe owner Terry Pegula’s open vault will encourage Murray to go Rex Ryan on us and make a play for a big name like Mike Babcock or Dan Bylsma.
Babcock wants to win, but he knows Murray well from their Anaheim days and what he really wants at this stage in his career is to get paid. With Pegula’s wallet and a McEichel, Buffalo might be a far more comfortable landing point for him than the pressure cooker of Toronto.
Whatever the Sabres decide, let’s hope they knock off their silly euphemisms for tanking. No GM should spout the phrase “losing properly” like Murray often has this year. Not a good message.
Team President Ted Black embarrassed himself in a long ESPN.com feature about the Sabres last week when he said, “Tanking I think has become a shorthand for rebuilding.”
That’s just absurd. One scout in the Vancouver press box said to me before the game Friday night, “This is some shorthand they got going.”
The Sabres can talk about Hockey Heaven and 3-4 years down the road all they want. Building through the draft has worked in a lot of places, but no one knows if it will work here or if this franchise will become Edmonton East. Everyone is just guessing.
People in Western Canada are stunned. Hockey folks are laughing at the product the Sabres have put on the ice. Truth be told, so are we. We know the deal.
But much worse than that, they’re laughing at the organization itself. Yes, laughing. And that’s not how it’s supposed to be going.
The Anaheim Ducks are at the top of the NHL standings but have dropped two straight at home. What was coach Bruce Boudreau’s reaction Friday night after his team’s 4-1 loss to Chicago? “We know we have to be better,” Boudreau said. “But let’s not talk like we’re friggin’ Buffalo.”
That pretty much says it all. An entire month. Not a single point. It doesn’t have to be this bad.