Ted Black knew the answer could get him in trouble. The goal of the Buffalo Sabres, after all, is to win the Stanley Cup. With fans on the verge of crumpling useless playoff invoices, the Cup doesn’t seem to be in the immediate future.
But Black, the team president, is more of a big-picture guy. He analyzed the organization now compared to when Terry Pegula assumed ownership in February 2011, and he plowed ahead with his answer despite anticipated cries to the contrary.
“Do I think we’re better off now than we were when Terry bought the team?” Black said Wednesday. “I think we’re closer to building that roster that is going to win the Stanley Cup, so I’ll have to say yes.”
Sabres management and ownership still believe they are on a path to a championship, although it’s a different path than they originally mapped. They’re disappointed the goal likely won’t be achieved during their initial time frame of three years – the Sabres enter tonight’s home game against Montreal in 23rd place overall – but they see positives on a macro level that outweigh the obvious issues along the micro plane.
“The good news is our owner is going to be patient with doing everything he can to build a championship team and not at the expense of building a team that’s just good enough to make the playoffs,” Black said during a nearly two-hour lunch meeting. “Everything else needs to fall in place from there. I think what we need to do is just let the fans know how we’re going about trying to do this.”
The plan involves rebuilding from within through the draft, and Black says it’s already well under way.
The Sabres had two first-round picks last year and one second-round selection. They have a pair in each round this June. Through the recent trades of Jason Pominville, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold, they have a total of two first- and five second-round picks in 2014 and '15.
That’s a collection of six first-rounders and eight second-rounders in a four-year span. By comparison, it took them 10 years (2002 to 2011) to draft the same number of second-rounders and six years ('06 to '11) to select an equal number of first-round prospects.
“That’s a total of 14 top-60 picks,” Black said of the current stockpile. “We need to be right more often than we’re wrong. In that case, we’ll have eight players that will be impact players. That’s better than a third of your roster.”
Even the right selections will take time to develop.
“I want to win the Stanley Cup,” Black said. “If it takes a little longer and we have a more certain opportunity to win, I’ll take that.”
The most pressing question throughout Sabreland is whether the team has the right general manager in place to continue the rebuild. Darcy Regier has been GM since 1997. If, as expected, the Sabres miss the playoffs, they will have done so for the second straight year, fourth time in six seasons and seventh in 11.
“My opinion of Darcy is based on my work history with him, which is two years,” Black said. “That’s how I judge him. I think the opportunities that he’s had, whether it be through free agency to the trade deadlines and the draft, I think he has done well in each of those instances.
“That doesn’t mean that I think Darcy has built a championship team right now since we’ve bought the team. I think he has used those opportunities to improve us.”
It hasn’t shown up in the standings, however. That’s why the Sabres are changing paths and embracing a full-scale rebuild.
When Pegula purchased the team, Buffalo had eight players who participated during the Eastern Conference final run of 2007. Only four (Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford) remain from that foundation.
“What we tried to do – and it didn’t work – was add some pieces to that the year Terry bought the team, bring in some free agents, make some trades and hopefully get that team back to where it was,” Black said. “It didn’t work.
“You make a plan. If it doesn’t work, you’ve got to be prepared to pivot and move in another direction. … We do know where we are with building a team. In the new CBA, it’s even more important than years past that you have to do it through the draft and the accumulation of young talent.”
Among the other topics discussed by Black:
• Pegula’s absence from the public eye after being visible early in his tenure. The Sabres cautioned the media during the owner’s opening few months that he would step back from the spotlight.
“If there was more availability then, and there probably was, it was just by virtue of ‘we want to know who this new guy is,’ ” Black said. “It doesn’t have to all be negative, either. He’s not going to come out and talk after a 10-game winning streak.”
• The increasing number of empty seats in First Niagara Center for games that are sold out.
“No-shows have always been give or take 1,000,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an indictment. I think it’s just Junior got sick and I can’t go to the game tonight. I don’t think I’m alarmed by anything that I’ve seen so far with empty seats. People are buying seats and they’re coming to the games, and God bless them because we haven’t delivered what we promised we’re going to do.”
• Booing and an apparent disconnect between the fans and organization.
“Fans were booing a 2½-minute shift where we couldn’t get the puck out of our zone. Those same fans all stood and cheered when we won that same game in a shootout,” Black said. “I think we’ve analyzed the boo phenomenon way too much. My guess is it was more visceral with the frustration of not being able to clear the puck for what seemed like an eternity. If it’s deeper than that, we’ll find out.
“Fans here deserve a winner more than any city I have ever driven through, read about in a book, than I can possibly imagine. Fans here are among the best and most passionate in any sport. They deserve a winner. We’re going to do everything in our power to give them a winner. The disconnect, if there is one, is because we’re not delivering that winner. I’d be more concerned if fans stopped caring.”