Saturday’s visit by Detroit marked the Sabres’ first game of 2016 and it was certainly high time to put 2015 to rest. Oddly enough, Thursday’s New Year’s Eve loss to the New York Islanders was Buffalo’s 82nd game of the calendar year – exactly a full season. Its record was 24-49-9 for 57 points. Brutal any way you slice it.
But you can’t simply turn the pages on 2015 that fast. It’s forever going to rank as one of the most bizarre years in franchise history. From The Tank to the drafting of Jack Eichel to the wild rebuilding of a team whose followers desperately hope will one day become a contender, the results of the future – whether historic or disappointing – will always point back to it.
So many farewells, so many hellos. Here’s this corner’s list:
Farewell to Ted Black, a nice man who interacted with fans more than any team president could have been expected to. But his public failings (Turd Burgers, anyone?) stuck and he wasn’t able to corporate schmooze enough for the higher-ups’ liking.
Hello to Russ Brandon, an eyebrow-raising pick to replace Black. There’s your instant pipeline to Terry and Kim Pegula. Brandon got in trouble with the Bills when he was making football decisions but freely says he’s not a hockey guy. Fair enough. He does, however, have a huge project to tackle in Hockeyville: First Niagara Center turns 20 in September and will need some of the renovations being undertaken in similarly aged facilities in St. Louis and Tampa.
Farewell to Ted Nolan, a good man put in a terrible spot that he had no chance to survive. And it was sad to see the game kind of pass him by. It’s about systems now, not about “the hardest-working team in hockey,” like it was in the ’90s.
Hello to Dan Bylsma, not a bad consolation prize after Mike Babcock jilted the Pegulas and GM Tim Murray. But what’s up with the weird line juggling and stubbornness about power-play units? Why did it take until Thursday, nearly half the season, to put the best five guys together on the PP?
Farewell to Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, Tom Coolen, Danny Flynn and Arturs Irbe, assistant coaches who were completely loyal to Nolan in troubled times. Nice men, all.
Hello to Terry Murray, Dave Barr, Dan Lambert and Andrew Allen, assistants who have a lot more to work with than their predecessors. A lot of credit for Rasmus Ristolainen’s development certainly seems like it should go to Murray, a veteran NHL head coach who directs the defense.
Farewell to Andrej Meszaros, Andre Benoit, Tyson Strachan and Zac Dalpe, who were pretty much the faces of The Tank. Meszaros might have been the worst $4 million signing in NHL history, a guy whose career was over but was brought in to get to the salary cap floor. On second thought, maybe he was a good $4 million signing (wink-wink).
Hello to Jack Eichel, the other face of The Tank who made draft night in Florida one of the most memorable off-ice events the franchise has seen since that roulette wheel spin in Montreal landed Gilbert Perreault 45 years earlier. It’s Eichel’s team now for, oh, about the next 10 years or so at least. The kid has wondrous talent but has quickly learned this is no college schedule. How much can he jump from NHL freshman to NHL sophomore?
Farewell to Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth and Anders Lindback, goalies who drove Tank Nation (and probably Murray) crazy with their strong play to steal points when no one wanted them to. Enroth has a legit Stanley Cup chance in L.A. and Neuvirth is leading the NHL in save percentage in Philadelphia. Either would still look good here but Murray deemed Enroth too small and Neuvirth blistered The Tank on his way out the door on deadline day in Tampa, ending any reunion chance.
Said Neuvirth: “That’s crazy if you want to finish last to get a first draft pick. It just doesn’t seem right to me. You always want to win. And if you’re playing for last place, I don’t think it’s right.”
Hello to Robin Lehner, Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark, the keepers of the cage this season. It still seems foolhardy that Murray gave up the No. 21 overall pick for Lehner, a guy who has never played more than 45 NHL games in a season. And it looks worse after the opening night ankle injury that means Lehner has played 32 minutes of hockey since February. Johnson and Ullmark have been better than you could have expected, with lack of run support (to borrow a baseball term) really hurting them at times. To wit: Ullmark has a .925 save percentage in his last three starts but is 0-3 because the team has one goal.
Farewell to Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Joel Armia, Matt Hackett, J.T. Compher and Brendan Lemieux, prospects who were sacrificed in the name of progress. Farewell to Zadorov’s wonky alarm clock too.
Hello to Sam Reinhart, who became a regular and a clear building block after opening the year by leading Canada to a dramatic gold medal in the World Junior Championships in Toronto, Most nights, he was vying with some kid named Connor McDavid as the best player in red and white.
Farewell to Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn, who were too anti-tanky on the fourth line and had to go. It’s still hard to believe Murray took a seventh-round pick for Mitchell, a guy who was re-signed by Montreal. Shows how desperate he was to dump guys who were responsible defensively and could kill penalties. Think they’d be better on the team’s current fourth line than, say, David Legwand?
Hello to Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn, trade pickups from Murray’s current shining hour as GM. O’Reilly slipped down the pecking order in Colorado behind the stars like Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene and couldn’t get Paid with a capital P like he wanted to. Murray turned around and made him the highest-paid player in Sabres history in a fleece of a deal that looks like his Chris Gratton-for-Daniel-Briere moment. McGinn looks like a veteran the team should work to re-sign and not pawn off as a rental at the deadline.
Farewell to Cody Hodgson, who simply forgot how to play the game and mercifully landed in Buyout City before heading to the Music City. He’s been a healthy scratch there too. Next stop for the former No. 1 pick might be someplace like Switzerland.
Hello to Cody Franson and Carlo Colaiacovo, needed veteran pickups for the defense. Franson has been a help to the power play and even though you can go wide on him at this point of his career, do you still want to be watching Meszaros, Benoit and Strachan?
Farewell to Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford, good soldiers who have found career rebirths in Winnipeg. While it was time for Stafford to go, Myers was all in on the rebuild here and struggled with hard minutes on a terrible team. We’ll never know what it would have been like to see him have teammates like Eichel, O’Reilly and Reinhart to pass the puck to. A nagging question.
Hello to Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, the big names in the deal with the Jets. They’ve both dealt with injuries and Kane now has the specter of a police investigation over his head but their commitment to the team is unquestioned. But to justify all that Murray gave up, both have to be better. Particularly Bogosian, whose training camp injury has set him back and sapped him of his aggressiveness. Right now, the Sabres would be better off to still have Myers.
Farewell to Chris Stewart, who loved his time here but went to Minnesota on deadline day and ended up in Anaheim. I’ll always remember talking to him in the lobby of the Tampa Harbour Island Westin shortly after he was traded, about what it was like to be a Sabre last season and how hard it would be for those left behind the last month.
“I do feel for them,” Stewart said. “Just for the fact everybody keeps talking about the “Tank Nation’ and all that and tanking for McDavid. … It’s frustrating hearing that every game. It’s kind of insulting to the guys in the dressing room who go out there, block shots, get their face punched in and play the right way.”
Stewart knew the deal. They all did. But his final parting words seemed right at the time and look right now too.
“I know days are dark right now,” Stewart said. “But it’s not going to last forever. They definitely have got some pieces and are going in the right direction.”
For being out since Nov. 17, Sabres defenseman Mark Pysyk had the worst bone bruise in NHL history. Until he gave it up to reporters Friday that he actually had a broken bone in his foot and that’s why he’s been out so long. That revelation has become Bylsma’s pattern on injuries.
The player is listed as day to day, suddenly vaporizes, is listed as week to week and then returns long after, himself revealing a problem the coach never admitted to.
We’ve seen that play out with Bogosian, with Tyler Ennis and with Lehner, who admitted he had a big setback in his rehab that stretched his timetable past 10 weeks. Exactly the setback Canadian television reported that Bylsma denied when confronted about it here.
There’s being coy with injuries and there’s outright lying and that’s where Bylsma has been in his first season. It’s not a good look for a franchise trying to emerge from laughingstock status. It’s a tired hockey cliche that opponents will target injuries. Things get revealed in the NFL, where you could certainly target, or teams get fined heavily.
It should be noted the Sabres are pretty much in line with goofy NHL rules about injury disclosure, listing upper or lower body and a day-to-day or week-to-week timetable. They went above and beyond by listing Lehner’s timetable at 6-10 weeks. And Bylsma was specific Saturday by pointing out Ennis’ new upper-body injury was not related to his previous one, believed to be a concussion.
Still, Bylsma has been asked direct questions multiple times and shouldn’t be in the business of lying to the media and, by extension, the fans. Too often this season, he has been. Pysyk is the last straw in this view. It’s time to knock off the shenanigans.
Around the rinks
• It’s time for the NHL to knock off the John Scott lunacy. The Arizona enforcer and former Sabres dressing room comedian led the voting and won the Pacific Division captain nod for the All-Star Game in some kind of screwy Internet hoax even though he’s cleared waivers three times this season.
The league should have had a pared-down list of players to choose from in the balloting for the division captains of the new 3-on-3 event. Then this wouldn’t have happened. So now the NHL has to take away future All-Star voting from fans so pockets of smart-alecks can’t make a farce of the whole process.
• Nice shout-out to the Niagara University hockey team and head coach Dave Burkholder by Eddie Olczyk on NBC’s telecast of the Winter Classic Friday from Foxborough, Mass. The reason? Olczyk’s oldest son, Eddie Jr., is a first-year assistant coach on the NU staff. The former UMass letterwinner joined NU this year after serving as assistant head coach at Utica. The Purple Eagles were checking on in the Bruins-Canadiens game while on the bus to Fairfield, Conn., for this weekend’s series against Sacred Heart.
• You want to see a beauty of a sweater? Google what the combined Minnesota alumni team will wear when it meets the Chicago alums outside Feb. 20 in Minneapolis the day before the current NHL teams meet at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. The Minnesota boys are going back to the North Stars’ white, green and gold with the star atop the ‘N’ and the North Stars and Wild logos on opposite shoulders. Nice.