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Jerry Sullivan: One lottery does not change Sabres' losing culture

You have to hand it to the Sabres. No sports franchise has such an infinite gift for failing miserably and having it come off as a grand strategy.

Three years after the tank, which was going to turn Buffalo back into Hockey Heaven, they finished dead last in the NHL, a staggering 34 points out of a playoff spot. But last week, the Sabres finally won the draft lottery, which means they'll get Rasmus Dahlin.

Dahlin is a genuine stroke of great fortune. There are no serious doubts about this kid, as there are with the Bills' new franchise quarterback, Josh Allen. Dahlin might be the best defenseman to come into the league since Nicklas Lidstrom, a true generational talent.

Throw in the fact that Kim Pegula is taking over as Sabres president and, my lord, we might as well clear the streets for a Cup parade. Never mind that she's unsuited to preside over one pro franchise, never mind two. This is progress, and the team's more gullible fans will quickly forgive the sins of the past.

Can a waiting list for season tickets be far behind?

Well, a bit of caution is in order. Sabres fans have been played for suckers before. They should have learned from the post-tank years that a supposed generational player doesn't turn a hockey team around overnight, that losing on purpose and making reckless personnel decisions have long-term consequences.

The Sabres should be better next season (how could they not?), but they're still a long way from contention. They're still paying for Tim Murray's mistakes as general manager, in the same way the Bills remain burdened by Doug Whaley's misguided moves as GM – regardless of their fortuitous playoff breakthrough.

They're the worst team in the league for a reason. They have a dressing room full of overpaid underachievers who have grown accustomed to losing. They're bereft at left wing and goalie. Dahlin is 18 and will be easily their best defenseman. Their depth forwards are borderline NHL-caliber.

Go ahead and cheer for Russ Brandon's ouster. He was irrelevant on the hockey side. This is a team with a rookie head coach, a rookie general manager and a figurehead team president. Oh, might it be time for the most empowered woman in pro sports to answer questions at a press conference for once?

[Sabres Ryan O'Reilly says he lost love of the game, lacked mental toughness] 

Dahlin will be walking into a toxic, losing culture. Ryan O'Reilly, a presumed leader and the highest-paid player in team history, admitted he had grown accustomed to losing and lost his love for the game. Surely, he's not the only one afflicted by an environment in which losing had become acceptable.

They should be wary of dropping a precious asset into that culture. Dahlin is 18 years old, even younger than Jack Eichel was when he arrived in town. We found out from Eichel how demanding it can be for a teenager to show the way, while finding his own way in a rugged men's game.

Dahlin sounds like a supreme player and competitor – "mature far beyond his years," in the words of former Sabre Mike Weber. Weber said Dahlin has a great work ethic and hunger for winning. That's precisely the kind of player the Sabres need to create a more accountable and competitive culture.

But it's wishful thinking to expect this dysfunctional group to become a playoff team overnight. The Devils and Avalanche had sudden turnarounds this season, but they had established No. 1 goaltenders and much greater depth throughout their rosters.

The Sabres owe it to themselves, and to Dahlin, to transform that locker room as thoroughly as possible. Blowing it up is a nice idea, but a fanciful one. O'Reilly sounds like a man asking to be dealt, but what team is going to take on that $7.5 million cap hit? The same goes for Kyle Okposo and Zach Bogosian.

But the composition of that locker room has to change. Sam Reinhart seems a likely candidate. Reinhart finished strong last season with 15 goals in his last 29 games, when the Sabres were well out of it and there was no pressure. He has 21 even-strength goals in his last 161 games. Trade him when his value is high.

I'd also move Rasmus Ristolainen, assuming any team would want to pick up the last four years of his contract at $5.4 million a year. There's early sentiment for pairing him with the other Rasmus. But Ristoliainen is a liability in his own end and one of the most overrrated players in the league.

Ristolainen is generally among the first players to bolt after practices. Weber recalled how Dahlin would show up at the rink in Sweden at 7 in the morning. He would work out for a couple of hours, watch video on his own, then work out and watch video with his team. Weber said the kid took it "to another level."

Still, the kid is 18. Dahlin will be under a lot of pressure as he begins his NHL career. People shouldn't add to it by expecting him to make the Sabres an instant contender. The real pressure should be on Eichel, who will be entering his fourth pro season and has yet to alter a chronic losing culture.

[Kim Pegula wielding unprecedented power, faces heavy lift with Bills and Sabres]

Kim Pegula says there's "lots to be excited about going forward." There's some truth to that. But it's convenient to look ahead when there's a trail of woe, incompetence and unfulfilled promise in your wake. The Pegulas have driven the Sabres to the bottom of the NHL twice since buying the team seven years ago.

The more skeptical fans, fed up with the product on the ice and the shoddy game-night experience, won't buy in. Others, ever-willing to believe, will see the lottery as sign that the Sabres' luck is finally changing. By now, we know it takes more than luck.

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