Last week, before the Sabres left for their road trip to Florida, Tim Murray pulled Brian Gionta aside in the dressing room for an impromptu meeting. He assumed his captain understood the situation, but he wanted to make sure with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching.
The Sabres were in dead last in the NHL, perfect for the pro-tanking crowd that has become obsessed with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Murray had pending free agents that needed to be traded. He braced Gionta for the worst in a season that already has been miserable.
“He’s the coach of our team in the room when it’s just the players in there,” Murray said Monday. “I like to keep him updated. Without telling him our plan, he knows what the expectations are. He knows this day was coming. And he’s a professional. When you’re in 30th place, every player had to figure you’re moving players out.”
It was hard to fathom the Sabres getting any worse this season, but Murray managed to weaken his roster Monday. He had little choice but to trade Chris Stewart, Torrey Mitchell, Brian Flynn and Michal Neuvirth while he could. The unspoken benefit was getting worse in the process.
Murray has denied all along, and he did again Monday, that he’s been told or decided himself that the Sabres needed to finish last and place themselves in the best possible position to select Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the NHL draft. The only way to ensure getting one of them is by finishing 30th.
So let’s not kid ourselves.
Murray is known as a masterful talent evaluator. He was either putting his team in position for McEichel or over his head as a general manager. Goaltender Chad Johnson was the only addition who will play in the NHL this season, assuming Ted Nolan is desperate enough to put him in the crease.
By the looks of things, the Sabres sank to a new low Monday. They weren’t alone. The Coyotes were intent on dropping to the bottom with them after gutting their roster and positioning themselves for one of the two young stars. It has turned into an arms race in reverse, an embarrassment for the NHL.
Sadly, pathetically, times have changed.
This is no indictment of McDavid or Eichel, both of whom are blessed with talent and appear to be future superstars. People see them and think Sidney Crosby while forgetting that the Penguins had Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Marc-André Fleury, Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik and other key players on their roster.
Pittsburgh has had entertaining teams for years, but it won one Stanley Cup despite all the talent surrounding Crosby. Wayne Gretzky led the Oilers through their glory days, but they were good enough to win a Cup without him. Edmonton has stocked up on high picks in recent years and gone nowhere.
Alex Ovechkin never won a Cup. Neither did Ilya Kovalchuk. Or Gilbert Perreault. Or Pat LaFontaine. Or Cam Neely and a long list of others. Why? Because winning requires more than one player. The best forwards play about 20 minutes a night, which means they’re on the bench for about 40 minutes.
But that doesn’t stop people from pinning their hopes to an 18-year-old who has never played against men who don’t care about their potential.
Obviously, McDavid or Eichel would help any team, but throwing away an entire season for any individual makes little sense in a team game.
The two games in the coming weeks between the Sabres and Coyotes should be interesting. Will they cycle the puck in their own end? Do they shoot on their own goaltender? If the idea is losing, why bother with a goaltender at all? They could play three-on-three and expose the game for the joke it will be.
This is what happens in professional sports that encourage losing as a strategy for winning. It goes against everything sports are about and compromises their integrity. I don’t know a competitor worth keeping who would embrace losing.
If the NHL wanted to stop tanking, and it should, it would give the first pick overall (or the best odds of winning the lottery) to the team finishing 17th in the league and continue down the line. Problem solved.
Brainwashed Sabres fans have been on board with losing all season. The standards have been lowered. The whole thing is backward because they have embraced the backward thinking of people making decisions. Years ago, fans protested outside the arena because they fired Nolan. Now, they pay to see him lose.
You know who doesn’t agree with the pro-tanking sect? Tim Murray. At least that’s what he said Monday after making his roster worse than it was the previous day. He broke things down after his news conference, just as he did with Gionta. They had free agents who needed to be traded.
“I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” Murray said. “I don’t even want to speak to it. I’ve got great confidence that if we’re picking 28th, we’re going to get a hell of a player. If we’re picking 25th, we might get a hell of a player. If we don’t get one of those two guys, we’ll find a way to get a top center iceman.”
Murray wants to believe it could turn around quickly, but he has yet to earn the benefit of the doubt. He has never rebuilt a team. He’s still cleaning up the mess left behind by the previous regime. Nine first- and second-round picks over the next three years should help, but nothing is certain.
I’m still not sure what to make of the guy. He paid a hefty price for Evander Kane and Zack Bogosian, guys he considers impact players. Rookie defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov appear to be solid young players. He believes Sam Reinhart will be a top-six forward. We’ll see.
The next 18 months are critical. Kane has two full seasons before he’s an unrestricted free agent. The Sabres better be selling Kane more than a big paycheck and pretty practice rink. He’s getting paid whether he stays or leaves, but there are better places to live than Buffalo and better teams than the Buffalo Sabres.
Murray’s best sales pitch for free agents will be winning. Buffalo has been in such bad shape that management was forced to overpay players to stick around. When that happens, you get players performing below value and staying for the wrong reasons. Before long, you’re back where you started. And it’s not pretty.
“I believe, as bad as it looks, that we’re on our way to assembling a talented base that can be competitive for a long time,” Murray said. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”