It’s only fitting that Darcy Regier, who named the “suffering” era, will make his return to Buffalo when the NHL’s two worst teams are on the ice.
Regier, fired by the Sabres in November 2013 after 17 years as general manager, is scheduled to be in attendance Thursday when the Arizona Coyotes visit First Niagara Center. Hired as the Coyotes’ senior vice president and assistant GM last summer, Regier hasn’t made a public appearance in Buffalo since being let go by the Sabres.
His arrival will be another subplot to one of the more intriguing days in Sabres history.
With a little more than two weeks left in the season, the Sabres and Coyotes are separated by five points points in the race for 30th place and a guaranteed acquisition of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Arizona has sunk to 29th by going 2-17-1 during its last 20 games, including Tuesday night’s victory in Detroit. The Sabres are 30th as part of a plan set in motion by Regier, owner Terry Pegula and team President Ted Black two years ago.
Regier will either see the Sabres strengthen their hold on a top-two draft pick or watch his new team torment the Buffalo fans who are dreaming of a potential superstar in town.
One thing Regier will certainly see is a house divided. Many Buffalo fans cheered for visiting New Jersey during the previous home game, successfully hoping the Sabres would stay three back of Arizona last week. With the stakes higher in a head-to-head matchup, the Coyotes could be treated like the home team unless diehards who don’t care about the draft drown out the other fans.
While those inside the Sabres’ dressing room have tried to sidestep tank talk since the opening day of training camp, they know the interest is at an all-time high with Arizona in town. They kept their emotions and comments in check Tuesday, but …
“How you feel and what you say and how you act is two different things,” coach Ted Nolan said.
“These guys are all professional guys. … You just want to go out and do your best.
“The outside distractions are always going to be there. It teaches you a little more resolve on how to keep those outside distractions outside.”
Nolan is fully aware that many fans are rooting for losses, but he hopes they recognize why he and the players are trying to win.
“This city knows what it’s like to work,” Nolan said. “It’s a city full of workers, and I don’t know anybody in this town who’d go to work and not give their best. That’s what we’re trying to do as a hockey team. I’m sure the fans will get behind that.”
The question is how many. The prospect of short-term pain for potential long-term gain has drawn legions.
“There’s a lot of excitement for McDavid or Eichel,” Sabres forward Cody Hodgson said. “There’s a lot of excitement for good reason. They’re two premier players, and they’re going to be in the National Hockey League as well.
“We don’t really talk about it much as a group other than what we need to do to win. We’re still trying to focus on that as players and doing what we can on the ice to be successful. The other stuff will kind of take care of itself after the year. Right now, as far as we’re concerned, we’re concerned about playing.”
After arriving from Dallas in the wee hours of the morning Tuesday, the Sabres held an optional practice.
The only players on the ice were the injured trio of Zach Bogosian, Patrick Kaleta and Cody McCormick. Bogosian and Kaleta might play against the Coyotes.
Bogosian has missed six games with a lower-body injury, while Kaleta has been out for 18 after having knee surgery.
“They both look good,” Nolan said.
Their return could boost the spirits of a frustrated team. The Sabres gave up three third-period goals Monday during a 4-3 loss to Dallas to fall to 1-8-2 in the last 11 games.
Considering they’ve won just 20 of 73 games, the Sabres have been frustrated all season.
“It’s tough to put a level of frustration of where we are now versus where we were in the middle of the season,” Hodgson said. “It’s tough losing anytime.”