The Sabres came up for oxygen over the weekend in their 5-2 victory over the Maple Leafs, a gasp before they sink beneath the surface and drown in another lost regular season. Math soon will officially confirm what has long been obvious, that the playoffs are out of reach yet again.
Buffalo teams have missed the postseason 12 consecutive times since the Pegulas' first full season of owning the Sabres, who are on a six-year run of futility. Since the Bills began their 17-year playoff drought, it will mark 28 times in 34 sports seasons in which Buffalo teams failed to reach the postseason.
The Bills haven't won a playoff game since the 1995 season. The Sabres haven't won a playoff series in a decade.
Nobody should blame Terry and Kim Pegula for that much misery, but nobody should absolve them, either. They contributed their share after purchasing the Sabres and later assuming command over the Bills. They inherited problems with both teams, added more layers and offered few solutions.
Buffalo fans are left in an internal wrestling match, a conflict between civic appreciation and competitive disappointment. Do they thank the Pegulas for purchasing the Bills and Sabres or condemn them for their roles in both teams becoming perennial losers? At what point does the honeymoon end?
Six years ago, Terry Pegula stood teary-eyed behind a microphone and suggested the Sabres would win a Stanley Cup within three years. You remember. "Starting today," he said, "the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup." Three years later, they had the worst season in franchise history.
Let's not forget employing the genius idea of losing on purpose – tanking – as a strategy for winning. If you listened to supporters of that asinine approach, and Pegula clearly was one of them, their problems would be solved. They spent two years losing and banking on the quick fix.
Two years later, the Sabres remain broken.
Never short on irrational reasons for failure, and hesitant to acknowledge they were duped by people they trusted with their money, apologetic Sabres fans emerged with predictable excuses: new ownership, youth, injuries, bad coaching. Only the owners aren’t new anymore, the Sabres have plenty of experience and a qualified coach. Blaming injuries is admitting a lack of depth.
The reality is that the Pegulas began steering the Sabres toward the abyss from the moment they took the wheel. Their first mistake, waiting too long to make changes at the top, had far-reaching effects that continue to make an impact. Looking back, it's incredible that a diehard Sabres fan like him ignored the obvious.
Supposedly, this was the year in which the Sabres made a run for the playoffs. Instead, they've been running around in circles. They drew within two points of third place in the Atlantic Division with a 26-23-10 record, marking the first time they were three games above .500 in five years, before a dreadful 4-9-2 stretch.
The Sabres are 31-32-12 this season, on pace for 81 points or the same number they had last season. And that's with the NHL's top power play. The Sabres would be on pace for 83 points in games played with Jack Eichel, who missed 21 contests. He has been terrific, but one player doesn't make a monumental difference in hockey.
Again, he's not a quarterback, and this isn't the NBA.
We could continue arguing over the merits of their approach, but certainly most would agree the tank lost traction and stalled. The Sabres wouldn't be much better with Connor McDavid, either. The Sabres needed Eichel and McDavid, plus other high-end players supporting them, to become a playoff team.
Fans were warned about the dangers of tanking, which was unfair to Eichel more than anyone else. The Sabres' owners were among many who bought into the myth. OK, they're better than they were two years ago. But if 10-12 points from the playoffs somehow passes for achievement, after they couldn't get any worse, heaven help us all.
Exceeding minimal standards and convincing others it equates to progress is another old trick. I figured fans were too smart to fall for that scam, but I was sadly mistaken. Desperate many are still lapping up the notion that all is well, that better days are just around the corner, that they will be vindicated.
Here's the deal: The Sabres are four or five, maybe six, upgrades away from being a perennial playoff contender. They're three top-six forwards and three top-four defensemen from becoming a championship contender. To suggest otherwise is buying false hope and giving Tim Murray too much credit.
This was a year in which the Sabres were expected to win more and challenge for the playoffs. That's what they sold after making a big jump last season, and that's what fans bought going into this year. Instead, they're on the verge of extending their longest playoff drought in history.
Someday, the Sabres will reach the playoffs again. In a league in which more than half the teams qualify for postseason play, it's bound to happen at some point. When it does, I wonder how many people will look back and argue that the five years (or more) needed to regain respectability was worth the unnecessary hassle.
Buffalo's winning percentage this season is fifth-worst since the NHL implemented an 82-game schedule in 1995-96. The other four seasons included two years in which the Sabres were tanking; the last year at Memorial Auditorium, a beloved team short on talent and long on effort that won the division a year later; and another season, 2002-03, in which the franchise was in turmoil and headed for bankruptcy while its owners were headed for prison.
This is the fourth year without the postseason since the Sabres decided to tear down the franchise, pacifying fans with a so-called plan while telling top-end free agents to look elsewhere if winning was their goal. It led to overpaid players and questionable trades, some lopsided, and limited the chance for drastic improvement.
Murray has accomplished nothing other general managers couldn't under the same circumstances. He assembled a roster with the intention of losing, drafted two players second overall, overpaid for trades, ran up payroll and made marginal improvement. He drained his cache of draft picks and has limited prospects in Rochester. He's been credited for growth mostly because he started from the bottom.
Doug Whaley is a failure who has been stripped of his power and, apparently, his voice. He has been around longer, and his teams have fallen short more often, but Murray hasn't exactly inspired confidence, either. The Sabres aren't much different than the Bills in that regard while drowning in mediocrity.
Both teams are treading water, gasping for oxygen, waiting for someone to come to the rescue with nobody in sight.