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Inside the NHL: Will Sabres-Coyotes clashes portend future?

John Vogl

Hype and hyperbole are as commonplace as pucks, helmets and balls in the sporting world. Our sports department has long joked about using “Big game today” as a daily headline.

There are times when the excitement and anticipation are merited. The Sabres have reached that time.

It’s not an overstatement to say the next eight days can alter the future of the franchise. Two upcoming games might have as much impact as drafting Gilbert Perreault, trading for Dominik Hasek and letting Chris Drury and Daniel Briere walk away.

Yes, the games against Arizona on Thursday and March 30 are that big.

As hockey fans know, only 30th place is guaranteed to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. The Coyotes, in 29th, were three points ahead of the Sabres heading into Saturday’s schedule.

If Arizona wins both meetings between the teams, the “race” for last is all but over; the Sabres would likely have too much ground to make up with only six games left. If the teams split, the final two weeks of the season will feature nail-biting moments. If the Sabres win both, they’ll likely have to rely on the lottery. The Coyotes’ remaining schedule is more difficult.

Some say it doesn’t matter, that Buffalo would still get a good player with the third pick. It’s true. An analysis of 20 drafts we did a couple of years ago showed that the top-five draftees turn out to be impact players.

But finishing last and drafting in the top two will improve Buffalo’s chances for a championship and help in the Sabres Store, on television and at the bottom line. Here’s how:

• Stanley Cup dreams – History shows the Sabres have a 67 percent chance of reaching the finals and a 50 percent chance of winning a Cup if they draft second. If they draft third, the likelihood of a finals appearance drops to 25 percent.

Since 1979, when the NHL expanded to 21 teams, nine non-expansion organizations have drafted in the top two in consecutive years, which is what the Sabres are hoping to do. Three of the clubs – Tampa Bay (2008-09), Edmonton (2010 to 2012) and Florida (2013-14) - did it too recently to be included in our study.

The remaining six are Winnipeg (1980-81), Minnesota (’82-83), Pittsburgh (’84-85), Quebec (’89 to ’91), San Jose (’96-97) and Pittsburgh (’03 to ’06). Of the six, four reached the Stanley Cup finals within eight years (Minnesota, Quebec/Colorado and both Pittsburgh clubs). Three won the Cup, with the North Stars losing to the Penguins in 1991. The winners combined for five championships.

Those are impressive results.

(Quick aside to a commonly heard argument/taunt that the Penguins have won only once in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin era: So what? There’s an entire cottage industry of “One before I die” memorabilia in Buffalo. For a sports town that has never won anything, one means everything.)

Meanwhile, four teams have drafted second and third in consecutive years since 1979. Only New Jersey (1984 to ’87) reached the finals within eight years, winning a Cup in 1995. The New York Islanders ’95-96), San Jose (’96 to 98) and Florida (2002-03) failed to reach the finals.

• Money, money, money – McDavid and Eichel are already household names. Getting one of them would give the Sabres a marketing rock star for the first time since the jerseys of Drury, Briere and Ryan Miller were flying off shelves in 2006.

Every day was like Christmastime in the Sabres Store during that era. Lines of people spent up to $100,000 on game days and $40,000 on off days. While McDavid might not bring that in on his own, he’d instantly become the face of the franchise. Kids would relate to him like they do to Patrick Kane and Crosby, and the merchandise would be hot.

The Sabres keep all revenue from merchandise sold inside the arena, while products sold at get split equally between the league’s 30 teams. Having McDavid or Eichel in the building would add cash to the Pegulas’ pockets.

Money would head the Sabres’ way from many directions with a potential superstar in town. Television ratings would go up, allowing the team to charge more for ads. While the Sabres have 16,000 season-ticket holders, they’ve sold out just 15 of their 36 home games. The rookie would sell more seats.

Buffalo, which already has a fan base that spreads from coast-to-coast, would get new backers thanks to an increase in exposure. The Sabres already have double-digit appearances on national TV. They’d be the “Game of the Week” regularly with Eichel or McDavid.

Taking all that into consideration, even “big game today” headlines won’t do justice to the Sabres and Coyotes meetings. The games should be colossal.

McIntyre tabbed for worlds

The officiating career of Amherst’s Fraser McIntyre continues its upswing.

The International Ice Hockey Federation has announced that McIntyre will be one of three American officials to work this year’s world championship in the Czech Republic. He will serve as a linesman after handling the role at the 2013 under-18 world championships and the 2014 world junior championship.

The 31-year-old graduate of Williamsville South has worked in the American Hockey League and NCAA this season.

On the fly

• Ryan Miller and his wife, Noureen DeWulf, welcomed son Bodhi Ryan Miller on Friday.

• Detroit and Tampa Bay are on pace to meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Lightning have won seven of the eight meetings between the teams during the last two seasons.

• Ottawa fans are tossing burgers onto the ice after wins by goaltender Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond. Senators rookie Curtis Lazar picked one up and ate it. “That burger really could have used some ketchup!” Lazar wrote on Twitter. “Cmon people!”


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