When the Buffalo Sabres convened at First Niagara Center on Monday, they did all the usual things you do when the season is over. Pack the equipment, sign loads of memorabilia for each other and charity and get dressed and pose for the team picture.
But they also met with first-year general manager Tim Murray. And he had a stern message to them about the train-wreck of a season they had just completed.
“This year was completely unacceptable,” Murray said during the team’s wrap-up news conference in the arena on Tuesday. “I told them it wasn’t all on them. It was on management, it was on the coaching staff. A lot of it was on injuries where we had to put people into positions that they aren’t ready for. So that’s out of our hands.
“As far as coming next year and being ready to battle for jobs, there’s going to be competition and we’re not going to hand jobs to young kids unless they deserve it. Come in shape, come ready to battle and come ready to play hard. That was the message.”
The Sabres finished 21-51-10, with their 52 points the lowest by an NHL team in a full season since 2000 and the second-lowest in franchise history. The mandate to the players is their summer preparation has to be better than it’s been.
“The expectations are going to be a little bit higher and training camp is going to be a lot tougher,” said coach Ted Nolan. “You can compete. You don’t have to have a whole lot of skill to compete and don’t have to have a whole lot of skill to come into training camp in the best possible shape.”
What does Murray plan to do to get this team out of the nether regions of the NHL?
The plans are still a work in progress. It depends, for instance, if the Sabres have one, two or three first-round picks this June, as they could still earn No. 1s from St. Louis and the New York Islanders. And it depends upon how quickly their cadre of young talent keeps developing.
“A lot of nights it was hard to watch,” Murray admitted. “A lot of nights we competed hard and just didn’t have enough talent to put us over the top, but other nights weren’t pretty.”
Murray said he’ll do what’s best for the organization through the draft and free agency, and expects to sign a couple of veterans this summer to augment the roster. He also said targeting young players who averaged 8-18 minutes per game for trades is another key avenue.
“Are we going to improve in leaps and bounds or is it going to be increments?” he said. “We will improve. We have to decide as an organization how we’re going to get there. This is not going to be a five-year rebuild. … When you tear it down, it doesn’t happen overnight, but I don’t buy into five-year rebuilds.”
Murray was asked point-blank about the potential of the Sabres or other teams tanking next season with prizes such as Ontario Hockey League superstar Connor McDavid and American standout Jack Eichel expected to be at the top of the draft. The topic has been a hot one this year in the NBA because of the talent expected to declare for its draft in June.
“We want to be competitive. If anybody thinks that there’s a message of tanking being sent from upstairs, I would suggest they put a camera on me for 60 minutes of the game when we’re losing and you’ll know that tanking is not what I want,” Murray said. “I want to play properly. I want to be competitive.”
Murray said he understood the notion that his deadline deals of Ryan Miller, Steve Ott, Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick could have been construed as a form of tanking. That’s especially true considering the Sabres went 2-16-2 over the final 20 games.
But he said those deals were done with long-term goals in mind, and not with the idea of getting a top pick this year that was already in reach.
“The coaches on the bench don’t want to lose,” Murray said. “I can’t imagine there’s one player in there that wants to finish last so we can get Connor McDavid so he can lose his job to him. Where in our organization would the tanking come from if the GM doesn’t want to lose and the coaches don’t want to lose and the players don’t want to lose?
In other items from the news conference and beyond:
• Injuries: Murray said he believes goaltender Matt Hackett needs surgery on his injured right knee while goaltender Michal Neuvirth has been seeing a specialist for a nagging hip problem. Marcus Foligno (shoulder) and Henrik Tallinder (ankle) are pondering minor surgeries.
Neuvirth, who played two games after being acquired from Washington but didn’t play again, had refused to reveal his injury Monday.
“We think he’s a good goalie and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it,” Murray said. “Beyond the injury, how can we help him in that area so it’s not a recurring thing?
• Buyouts: Murray said it was less than 50-50 the Sabres would use both of their CBA-allowed compliance buyouts this June but pretty much admitted one will be used on goal-less forward Ville Leino. “It’s not 100 percent, but it’s a very good possibility that’s one of our buyouts,” Murray said.
• Coaching staff: Nolan said no definitive decision has been made on his assistants, although sources maintain that Joe Sacco, Teppo Numminen, Jim Corsi and Jerry Forton will not be retained.
“You want to make sure you evaluate properly,” Nolan said. “Tim and I have had some discussions the last couple of weeks. It’s hard to address during the season.”
• Defenseman Jake McCabe was confirmed Tuesday afternoon by USA Hockey for the Team USA roster at the World Championships next month in Belarus.