Rebuilding vs Identity
My writing is usually pretty farcical or satirical. That reflects my view of the sport of hockey; it’s entertaining, I don’t take it very seriously, and I realize that nothing I say or do is going to influence this team. It’s not.
Sure, I understand mob mentality. If there is a groundswell of overwhelming fan opinion, such as buying a giant billboard that advocates firing the Bills’ coach or destroying the new and edgy Sabres logo, the names up top will notice and act. Because it’s a business, and a gigantic wave of public approval sways business…that’s how business works. But the idea that the general manager of the team reads my trade proposals or Twitter feed or listens to callers talking about whether or not a player should be benched? Let’s not kid ourselves…that discussion is for us, not them.
One question I do take seriously is, “What is the identity of this team?” I consider it more important than asking if they need to “rebuild”.
Rebuild into what? Generally speaking, you want a team to rebuild into a top tier team, right? You want Buffalo to turn in to Pittsburgh, or Chicago, or Montreal. People that talk about rebuilding don’t want a second tier team like Buffalo to be restructured into something at the same level or lower. So when Thomas Vanek is quoted today as saying he wants no part of a long term rebuilding effort, our first reaction is to feel this pit in our stomach. That means he’s gone, doesn’t it, because rebuilding inherently takes a long time. Well, shit.
A long term rebuild is exactly what fans have been craving since this season stumbled out of the gate and fell on its face. Today, 3 days before the 2013 trade deadline, fans are prepared for this team to be gutted and fried, replaced entirely by second round picks, complete with awesome fire sale videos. Yesterday the landslide began, with Jordan Leopold getting shipped to St. Louis for a 2nd round pick as well as a conditional 5th round pick (which may become a 4th rounder).
Stocking up on picks is usually indicative of a long term rebuild. Classically, the picks are used in the draft, and draft picks usually take upwards of three years to have a hope of making it in to the NHL. A shorter-term, less complete rebuild of a team could involve trading up in the draft. Perhaps the 5th round pick that was acquired for TJ Brennan and the 4th/5th rounder involved in the Leopold trade could be traded for a 2nd or 3rd round pick, so that the team’s overhauled scouting department could grab a player they really like. To be true to form with this mentality, we’d need to see all upcoming UFA’s shipped out tomorrow for whatever can be gained.
The route I’m more inclined toward, and the one I can more realistically see Darcy Regier take, is that of an identity shift. One that has been a long time coming. And the lynchpin of the desired identity was acquired last summer and is fast becoming a fan favorite.
Pause for a second. Before you say, “Steve Ott is a glorified pest,” let’s take a step back. Let’s discuss what I’ll call the “tiers” of the hockey world.
Tier One – These are the premier teams in the league. The top teams in the big markets where the big free agent names are thrown around. The teams themselves may be good or bad any given year, but the organizations have two distinct characteristics: they aren’t afraid to spend big money on elite players and the elite players seek these teams out.
- New York Rangers
- Los Angeles
Again, these aren’t set in stone. They aren’t always that good of a team. But when a 90 point player or an elite defender hits free agency, these are the teams that are immediately their rumored destination. Even Toronto. These teams have displayed some stability and/or a strong desire to obtain top talent. Hockey players thrive on that spotlight…except Clarke MacArthur.
Tier Two – These teams might have the money or they might have the structure. But they might not have both, or they might have them but have not displayed trustworthiness. I talk a lot about how players around the league talk to each other, and why the Sabres should not necessarily use their amnesty buyout to end Ville Leino’s contract two years in to it. It’s because league trust is not easily obtained. The second tier teams surprise everyone when they land the big free agent or make a huge trade, but not because they are pits of despair. They’re just “second best”.
- New Jersey
- Tampa Bay
- San Jose
Generally speaking, these teams have to pay more money to lure an elite player to come play for them. They need to give players a reason…one other than “Come play for Pittsburgh”. Free agents need to be enticed by courting them, saying “Pekka Rinne is on his way to the top, and you can be his defender!” or “Hey Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, here’s stupid money for way too long!” A well managed second tier team is working to build that trust to become top tier. A second tier team that’s plummeting does so by spending money foolishly and then pulling back on its deals.
Third Tier – These teams have very little good will. They need to grossly overpay for free agents, and are mired in inconsistency. Management is not fully trusted, and these teams may not know who they are. They may have a solid identity and are putting the pieces in place, or they may have players vehemently opposed to being traded there from other teams.
- New York Islanders
- St. Louis
Notice that these teams aren’t necessarily at the bottom of the standings, but tend to be. There’s a reason for that.
Okay. There’s my tiers. They aren’t set in stone. That list will look different every year, but not by too much. For instance, up until the resurrection of Chicago, they were Tier Three. Buffalo was definitely Tier Three after the Great Debacle of 2007, when the team captains left and ownership was known to be cheap and inconsistent.
Still with me? Good. Because I’ve been leading up to this very point. The Buffalo Sabres thought they made the jump from Tier Three to Tier One when Terry Pegula bought the team. They were wrong. Buffalo is still a second-best destination, because good will cannot be bought with money alone. They shelled out big money for Drew Stafford’s, Andrej Sekera’s, and Tyler Myers’ contract extensions. They cut gigantic checks for Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff, and Robyn Regehr. This has not been graduation to Tier One, this has been the courting phase. Buffalo is not Pittsburgh, they are trying to get there. They are trying to do so without an identity of who they are.
They are a second-best option in a second-best market with a second-best history. They shipped out the stale core that wasn’t working, in Gaustad, Connolly, Roy, and even Lindy Ruff. They tried to cram too many second and third line guys onto a team that wasn’t ready for them. They have players that were handed the keys before they were ready, and right now they’re just finding out that they have some chaff in with the wheat. I’m sorry, but Drew Stafford isn’t there yet. He’s not. Stafford is ready to make a comeback and he’s ready to work now. That’s great. Meanwhile, Steve Ott came on to this team swinging and earned himself a spot on both the power play and the top line.
Nathan Gerbe was benched by Ron Rolston for not giving the team a reason to play him.
Ryan Miller is blowing his lid.
Jason Pominville is quiet as a mouse both on and off the ice.
…and Thomas Vanek is not ready for a complete overhaul.
The pieces are in place for a decent team, likely a 6th through 12th place finisher, once they figure out who in the world they are supposed to be. They’ve gone the last two years with seven or eight “top six” forwards, many of whom under-perform on a night-by-night basis. Darcy Regier tried to create a team with three scoring lines, and that just plain doesn’t work in a game where there are 60 minutes of ice time to go around. If you’ve got three right wings that can score 30 goals each, but they need to play 20 minutes a game to do so, then they’re going to disappoint. That’s how ice time works.
So an option now, with Vanek’s words, seems to lean toward moving him. Trade him for a high price, get some huge prospects or high level picks for him, and become young and hot like Edmonton. Hope you can land another elite goal scorer in his place, and sign up for three years of middling. Fall to the bottom of Tier Two, and work hard to re-gain the good will that’s been torched by spending money too quickly.
OR, where I’m going with all of this, lock on to the hardest working guys, jettison those that consistently under-perform, and use those assets to add to the desired identity. Regier nailed it by trading Derek Roy for Steve Ott (Adam Pardy notwithstanding). Demonstrate to Thomas Vanek that he’s The Guy, and that you’re ready to add a true veteran scorer alongside him. You may have to move Jason Pominville or Ryan Miller or Drew Stafford to do it, but those acquisitions aren’t going to go in to the draft where you’ll hope for a 3 year turnaround before someone is NHL-ready.
STOP. GETTING. YOUNGER. That’s the effing problem.
Stafford? I’m sorry, but it’s a bit too late. It’s really great that he wants to turn it around, but maybe waiting until the last leg of a lost season wasn’t the best time to do it. I mean, I know when I’m not pulling my weight at my job. I can usually identify it *before* three months have blown by, I’m getting booed, benched, and the deadline is looming. If Drew doesn’t have the cognitive ability to understand that he’s been playing like complete garbage, he might not have the wherewithal to be a leader of this club. For crying out loud, rip the “A” off his jersey and give it to Steve Ott.
Let’s maybe recognize that Marcus Foligno is a 3rd line guy that can come up to the scoring line for a stint, but not for the whole season.
Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis are looking better and better, and they’re each 22 years old. So there’s the middle of your top six. They’ve got the upside, and they continue to shine.
Ville Leino’s got 6 points in 8 games. He had an awful season last year, but he’s absolutely killing it out there this year with puck possession. He criticized the effort of this team when he was on IR, and everybody called him a hypocrite, but what’s hilarious is HE WAS EXACTLY RIGHT. So right now, you’ve got him. Earn the good will, keep him, make him display what he’s been showing through next season. There’s your second line guy, who when given top minutes has been delivering.
The gist of it is that a complete rebuild doesn’t have to be in the cards. So communicate that to your top goal scorer. Pull him aside. Let him know that the trades that are coming are going to be used for a quick turnaround. That maybe the team will be sellers at the trade deadline, but buyers in the off-season. Let him know that the draft picks that are being stocked up aren’t going to be used in the draft. The workaholic identity is on this team, it just needs to be given some teeth. Right now the Sabres are a team of third line guys that are overachieving mixed in with second line guys underachieving, but the under-achievers are the loudest voices in the room. So tell your best player that the chaff is going away and you’re going wheat shopping in July.
Or just rebuild. Screw it all. Tier Three isn’t all that bad. Plus there’s plenty of satire to be written.