PHILADELPHIA – The Stink for Sam campaign is officially a success. Shhhhh. Don’t tell anybody in the NHL offices.
The Buffalo Sabres got their man Friday night when they snagged Kootenay center Sam Reinhart with the No. 2 overall pick. He’s been their man for weeks – and Tim Murray’s prime scouting target for months – as their horrible season careened out of control.
This was the plan all along. Lose big, draft high, get a scoring center. It was an ugly scenario, played out through a season littered with a deposed general manager and coach, a “fired” president of hockey and the trades of the franchise goaltender, a captain and two goal-scoring wingers.
(Not to mention that mercy buyout of goal-less Ville Leino last week. First memo to Reinhart: Be sure to keep your No. 23 to make us all forget Leino ever existed.)
The Sabres’ plan is a relatively unseemly one in sports, but it’s not unique. In the last few days, in fact, Canadian sports giant TSN aired a 30-minute program about the 1983-84 Pittsburgh Penguins and the utter tank job they pulled off to get the No. 1 pick and claim Mario Lemieux. A 6-minute YouTube synopsis of the show has gone viral.
The Penguins’ owner, of course, was once a precocious 18-year-old out of Quebec. The Pens were drawing 6,000 fans a night and got the turnaround they needed by going 16-58-6 for just 38 points – or 14 points worse than the Sabres were this season. Imagine that.
So the Pens drafted Lemieux with the top pick and turned around to the point that they won two Stanley Cups. Don’t think the NHL has forgotten.
It looks bad. And it’s a real worry with Connor McDavid, a generational player in the Lemieux-Sidney Crosby mode, waiting to be grabbed next year. Think the Sabres would like to have McDavid and Reinhart as their top two centers someday soon? You bet.
So when the league’s Board of Governors met Thursday in New York, the timing of the TSN piece was bad for the Sabres. The timing of all the tanking talk in the NBA this year was bad for them too.
And voila, the lottery rules are different for next June’s draft. If you finish last overall, you’re going to have only a 19 or 20 percent chance to get No. 1, not 25 percent.
So remember this all season: The Sabres have an 80 percent chance of not getting McDavid no matter how bad they are next season.
As we’ve learned the last six months, Murray is stone-jawed and upfront when he’s asked a question. Especially a direct one. When he met the media Friday morning, I asked him if he felt the Sabres were being punished by Gary Bettman & Co. for their season and their misdeeds, notably Darcy Regier’s public pronouncement of “suffering.”
“‘We’re not tanking,” Murray insisted. “We don’t intend to pick No. 1 four years in a row. ... From my understanding from talking to Gary, the concerns were not about the Buffalo Sabres.”
I pretty much agree with him. This change wasn’t designed to get the Sabres to stop tanking. It was designed to stop the Sabres – and maybe a lot of other teams – from tanking.
The Sabres, of course, sure looked like they were doing that last season under Regier and Ron Rolston, when they opened with an overmatched college coach and became the first NHL team to field a roster with four teenagers in 18 years. But let’s not forget, they finished 2-16-2 under Murray and Ted Nolan after the deadline deals of Steve Ott, Ryan Miller and Matt Moulson.
Murray is relieved the worst team in the league will still pick second next year if it loses the lottery, so the Sabres can count on the Jack Eichel consolation prize if they become that team. Starting in 2016, however, that escape hatch will close.
So when Murray took the podium Friday night, he didn’t look happy. He didn’t thank the Flyers or the city for hosting the draft, didn’t congratulate the Los Angeles Kings for winning the Stanley Cup. He just announced, in six words, he was taking Reinhart. Mission accomplished.
Was it rude? In NHL circles, probably. Will he get some nudging from the league, and maybe even some folks in his organization about protocol? Maybe.
But it was great theater. Murray is just not cut out of the same mold. He’s a different dude. He stood for the photos with Reinhart with no hint of a smile. Hands in pockets.
There’s just no pretense with the guy. He told reporters flat-out he offered all three of today’s second-round picks to seven teams to get back into the first round. Imagine the buzz that kind of move would have made. He said he hopes someone overpays him for pick No. 31, today’s opening pick in the second round.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if his gruff trip to the podium was a bit of a political statement too, both to Bettman and his fellow teams.
After all, it’s pretty baffling how this league operates at times. Why in the world would you change the rules for one of the most anticipated drafts in league history on the day before this year’s gathering? Talk about deflecting attention.
How about setting the salary cap limit and floor for next season a scant two hours – two hours! – before the draft? Think teams could have used that information some in the last week or two to formulate some deals? Several GMs probably choked on their Philly cheesesteaks when a $69 million limit was revealed.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. What did Mario Lemieux call the NHL way back in 1992? A garage league.
The Sabres aren’t the only ones in it doing goofy things.