Tim Murray certainly has his quirks, but the Sabres general manager does deserve credit for getting his message across. He’s unapologetically direct when answering questions whether or not you agree with him. Rather than beat around the bush, he’ll reach for the roots and pull out the entire shrub.
So when he was asked Thursday during a news conference in advance of the 2015 NHL Draft – or was it his end-of-season briefing? – whether he held up the Tampa Bay Lightning as a model franchise, Murray wasted little time concocting some bogus answer. Instead, his opinion rolled right off his tongue.
“They’re a model for sure,” Murray said. “I talk to Steve a lot. I think he’s an intelligent guy. I think he’s got a plan and he’s not going to waver from it. That’s the key to me. They’ve drafted very well. They’ve made some trades that helped them. And they topped themselves off in free agency.”
To review, the Bolts hired Hall of Fame player and rising executive Steve Yzerman as their general manager after the 2009-10 season. In his first season in the big chair, he made enough changes for them to make the playoffs for the first time in four years. In fact, they reached the conference finals.
Yzerman knew four years ago they weren’t talented enough to win the Cup, or deep enough to consistently contend, so he tore apart his roster again. Tampa Bay missed the playoffs the next two seasons and was knocked in the first round in 2013-14 before losing to Chicago in the Stanley Cup final this year.
Now, he has a team with staying power.
Buffalo should be terrified of the Lightning, who have the potential to torment the Sabres in the Atlantic Division the way the Patriots have tortured the Bills over the years in the AFC East. Tampa Bay has one of the youngest teams in the league, a coach who knows how to groom players and enough talent to contend for years.
“There’s a lot of areas where Tampa Bay in particular has grown and developed in the last two years,” Sabres new coach Dan Bylsma said. “Three years ago, we weren’t talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning like that. In a number of areas, we have to do the same … exact … thing, in terms of the development of our players.”
Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are among the NHL’s best at their respective positions. Stamkos was picked first overall in 2008 while Hedman was second overall a year later. They’re past the growing pains. Both are only 24 years old and have their best days ahead.
Yzerman added other good, young players. Tyler Johnson, 24, was an undrafted free agent who tied Stamkos for the team scoring lead with 72 points. Nikita Kucherov, 21, was a second-round pick in 2011. Ondrej Palat, 23, was selected five rounds after the Bolts took Kucherov.
Last year, Stevie Y traded veteran Martin St. Louis, his captain and face of the franchise, for Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. He added veteran Anton Stralman, who played in big games for the Rangers before he became a free agent. It must have been gratifying for Yzerman to watch his team knock off the Rangers in the conference finals.
Let’s not forget Ben Bishop, the 6-foot-7 goaltender who bounced around before Yzerman acquired him for Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick. Yzerman should have been given seven to 15 years in prison for stealing Bishop, who won 37 games last season and 40 this year.
The Bolts did all that while bringing along Jonathan Drouin, a talented winger who was taken third overall in 2013. The 20-year-old rookie played only 13 minutes a game while contributing on the power play and learning from veterans ahead of him. Tampa Bay effectively developed him on the fly.
Yzerman made the right moves and very few mistakes along the way. The work actually started before he arrived. Tampa Bay has been rebuilding, tweaking, twisting and massaging the roster for seven years after taking Stamkos. And they still fell short of winning the Cup.
“You say ‘quick,’ but how many years ago was Steven Stamkos drafted?” Murray said. “It takes time, but that’s the blueprint. You get high-end players, and then you have to find players that aren’t first-round picks who are at least quality players if not impact players. They’ve done a good job.”
Remember, when he arrived, Murray suggested he needed two drafts and two summers to construct a competitive team. As he enters his second draft and second offseason as a general manager, the Sabres are a long way from playoff contention.
The Stanley Cup final was another reminder of just how far the Sabres are behind the top teams in the league. The gap appears wider now than any time in recent memory. The Sabres had 106 points in the past two years combined, which was fewer than five teams, including the Lightning, had this season alone.
Jack Eichel should help narrow the divide. Evander Kane will provide some scoring punch and toughness up front. Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov are good, young defensemen who are learning their trade. Zach Bogosian and Mark Pysyk will help the blue line if they stay healthy.
Murray still needs to find a reliable goaltender. The Sabres are about $30 million under the salary cap, so they’re in position to grab good players who might squirt into the trade market from teams over the spending limit. Murray would trade the 21st pick overall for a top-six forward.
It’s unlikely, along with the Sabres finding impact players in free agency. Murray said he gets less excited every year when he scrolls the list of unrestricted free agents. He sees progress in the immediate future, but that’s hardly an achievement for a team that finished last in the NHL two years running.
In reality, there is no quick fix.
Murray wasn’t wavering from his plan. He knew, in order to change the landscaping, he needed new plants that would take root and grow.
It takes time, which was why he didn’t hedge when asked if he expected to the Sabres to contend for a playoff spot next year.
“No, I’m not going to say that,” Murray said. “I’m going to say the same thing I say all the time: We want to get a little bit better every day. If we don’t execute and get the right goaltender or at least a competent goaltender, talking about the playoffs is just a waste of time. There are a lot of fixes here that have to happen.”