The motivation in the Buffalo Sabres locker room is clear and simple: Avoid finishing last.
That may ruffle the feathers of some in the team’s fan base who actively want the Sabres to finish 30th, thereby guaranteeing them at least the No. 2 overall draft pick. But athletes and coaches are wired to compete and at this point in the Sabres’ season, the most attainable goal they can compete for is 29th place.
“For sure you want to finish as high as you can,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said Wednesday afternoon after practice in First Niagara Center. “In a season like this you gotta find little things to set your sights on and that’s definitely one of them.”
The stakes for 30th place are high Thursday night as the Sabres host the Arizona Coyotes.
The Coyotes are coming off an overtime win at Detroit, putting them five points ahead of the Sabres. Buffalo has nine games remaining, Arizona eight. They will meet again on Monday night in Arizona.
“Nobody wants to be in the position our two teams are in. Not one player,” Coyotes forward Shane Doan said. “You’re embarrassed. You have to be. Nobody ever wants to be considered the worst. Obviously, both teams are considered the two worst teams in the league. That’s not a good feeling.”
“You don’t accept losing,” Gionta said. “You’re not content with game in and game out coming up short. No matter how close it is or what you’re doing, you gotta find ways to win. That’s what this league is about. That’s our main focus game in and game out is to try and get a win. It’s not good enough to be close.”
But winning through losing has been a popular topic among Sabres fans and forced players and the coaching staff to mitigate tank talk since last year’s draft.
Ted Nolan reiterated Wednesday his philosophy about changing the culture of the locker room by putting a premium on work ethic and accountability. Winning through losing is just not part of his approach.
“I can’t control what other people think and what other people do,” Nolan said. “I know what I feel. I’m not speaking for anybody else. I’m speaking for myself. Who wants to finish last? I never went into anything my entire life wanting to finish last. You go into it with the right intentions, and it’s the integrity of the game. That’s the line for me. You just go out and do what you have to do and feel the way you feel, and if some people want to finish last, well then good for them.”
Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian has been immersed in tank nation only since the Sabres acquired him at the trade deadline earlier this month. He noted that it’s a “good thing I don’t listen to the radio” when asked about keeping the negativity out of the locker room. He added that he’s seen a lot of positives in his short time with the organization.
“We’re not worried what anyone else thinks,” Bogosian said. “There’s a lot that goes on in here that people don’t know about and how we’re here for each other. We want to win for each other. That’s the way we go about things. No one wants to finish last. I don’t care who you are. As a competitive person, this is our job, this is our livelihood.”
Arizona’s fall toward the basement was orchestrated at the trade deadline and the Coyotes have gone 2-17-1 in their last 20 games to battle Buffalo for that coveted possibility of a top draft pick.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett glossed over tank talk after his team had an optional skate at First Niagara Center Wednesday.
“I think that’s your guys’ hype not our hype,” Tippett said to a media scrum. “That’s outside. We deal with what’s inside our room not what’s outside our room. … That’s inconsequential. When a coach or a player gets in a game, really that’s just outside noise. That has nothing to do with the bearing of the game. Nothing at all. Players don’t think that way. Coaches don’t think that way.”