The Stanley Cup playoffs begin tonight. It always feels hollow when the Sabres aren’t involved. Walking to the arena on Tuesday, I realized it had been three years since fans gathered in the plaza, on a similarly cold, snowy mid-April day, for Terry Pegula’s first home playoff game.
Things were so promising then. Pegula walked out onto the stage and was greeted like a savior. Fans thought they were getting hockey heaven. Three years later, they had the worst team in franchise history. Next year, the Sabres will likely miss the playoffs for a record fourth straight time.
But at least they nailed the season-ending press conference. I didn’t expect them to produce the owner. You’d think Pegula would feel compelled to offer a few words on the sorry state of his team, or to answer questions about the bizarre departure of Pat LaFontaine.
The Sabres know better by now. They did the wise thing, which was to keep anyone from ownership as far away as possible. Pegula’s lack of media skills are well-established, and they weren’t sending out Ted Black after his hostile, embarrassing performance of a year ago.
Tim Murray and Ted Nolan are the new faces of the franchise, men who weren’t responsible for running the franchise into the gutter and who have engendered positive feelings in a fan base that has been paying NHL prices for a minor-league product.
Say what you will about the team, which was an abject disgrace this season, Murray and Nolan give suffering fans a reason for hope. It’s faint hope, but when your team has hit rock bottom, you’ll grab onto anything you can.
Evidently, Sabres fans have a boundless capacity for belief. They continued to show up and support what was possibly the worst NHL team in half a century. The Sabres had the fewest goals per game of any team (not counting shootout goals) in the post-1967 expansion era.
As entertainment, it was dreadful. Still, there’s a waiting list of people who want to patronize the team. A lot of season ticket holders are afraid to surrender them, for fear they’ll lose out when the draft picks pay off and the Sabres are competitive again.
The big question, of course, is when that will happen, and how one defines the term “competitive.” Nolan, the head coach, promised the standard will be raised and the team will compete harder than ever next season. Murray, the general manager, said the same thing.
Murray characterized this past season as “totally unacceptable” and told the players expectations will be higher next season. He and Nolan talked, as all rebuilding teams do these days, about “changing the culture.”
So what will the standard be? The Sabres finished 41 points out of the playoffs. They could improve by 20 points next year and still miss by 20. Murray was asked if missing the playoffs next season would be considered acceptable.
“It depends how we do it,” he said. “There’s still a lot of questions to be answered about direction. There’s lots of questions to be answered about our top young players. Are they ready? Is it the right thing for them to be here or to be in Rochester?
“We haven’t had pro meetings yet,” Murray added. “We haven’t had amateur meetings yet. We haven’t decided our draft list yet. So there’s all kinds of questions that need to be answered that will help us answer which direction we’re going in next year. … But the direction we’re going in, depending on whether it’s young, it’s old, it’s free agency, it’s trade – we have to improve,” he said. “So are we going to improve in leaps and bounds, or in increments? But we will improve.”
Murray said he would like to add a couple of veteran free agents, assuming they want to play here. I’d love to see them take a run at Ryan Callahan. It remains to be seen how many members of the current team will stick around. I get the impression that Murray isn’t too fond of some of the underachieving veterans.
He was a very strong presence Tuesday. It might have been the best public performance I’ve seen from a Sabres management person in 25 years. Murray was part dour executive, part Jimmy Fallon. At one point, a reporter began to ask about a certain expression from last April. Murray cut him off.
“I wasn’t here,” he said.
Fair enough, he was told. But fans were told to set up for suffering.
“I’m not using that word,” Murray said, smiling. “I want to get out in front of you.” The room broke up in laughter at that point. It was a far cry from a year ago, when Black and Darcy Regier presided.
Murray was asked how much rebuilding might be in store for fans, considering that the Sabres had bottomed out.
“When you tear it down, it doesn’t happen overnight,” Murray said. “I don’t buy into five-year rebuilds … I could sit here and say it’s a seven-year rebuild and hopefully I get 10 years out of it.
“But that’s not reality and it’s not what I want, anyway,” he said. “I want to rebuild here properly, which takes time. But it doesn’t have to take years. We’re not going to take short cuts. We’re going to do it right.”
As the cranes will attest, Pegula is good at building. Rebuilding is another thing. He was too slow to acknowledge the decrepit state of his hockey team. Murray is a veteran hockey man who knows how teams are built. There was a palpable disgust in his voice when he talked about the mess he inherited in January.
Murray seems like the right guy for the job. He and Nolan are determined to put a team on the ice next season that’s hard-working and accountable, something along the lines of Nolan’s first team here in 1995-96.
They won’t be a contender in the short run. They need to hit on some high draft picks and have their kids evolve into solid NHL players. As Murray said, he can’t fix it overnight.
More suffering is in store. That doesn’t mean the team should be a joke.