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Four NHL teams converge on the McDavid draft sweepstakes

The race for the bottom

For anyone really paying attention, last Friday an interesting convergence occurred on the NHL game schedule. Had this been the case on the last weekend of the regular season, observers would have been paying as close attention to these matchups as they would be the jockeying for playoff positions in the standings.

The games featured the four lowest ranked teams; Buffalo hosting the Edmonton Oilers, while the Columbus Blue Jackets were at the Carolina Hurricanes. That game went to overtime to settle, while here in Buffalo, the Oilers peppered the Sabres with 51 shots, scored two late goals and won in regulation 3-2.

So why was this all good news for Buffalo? Perhaps their fans saw a stinker of a game Friday night (and all season, as they’ve only won once on home ice all year), but for the entire gamut of stakeholders in Sabres nation, the ugly outcome brought Buffalo one more step to landing next year’s first draft choice and a chance to pick Connor McDavid as The Next One.

Nobody in the Sabres organization will go on the record admitting that that indeed is the plan. The front office from the ownership down trumps out the party line that the franchise is in it to win the Stanley Cup, Coach Ted Nolan grouses after every disgraceful performance how the players need to compete and step up their game. Players who actually hang around to talk to the media after games (and that usually means Zemgus Girgensons, Brian Gionta and whoever started in goal) all make excuses and apologies and state that they need to get better.

Interestingly, the McDavid mania that has taken hold here in Buffalo isn’t so much on the minds of the teams and their fan bases who are sharing the bottom of the standings with the Sabres.

In Carolina, they were anticipating a tough season, but the long term loss of their star Jordan Staal, who was injured in a preseason game right here in Buffalo in September, was a killer. Without Staal in the lineup, the Hurricanes have gone into a bit of a tailspin.

What is dominating headlines down in Raleigh, however, is not dreams of a first pick in the draft, but the alarmingly declining attendance which the team is suffering. Never known as a hockey hotbed, the team has announced paid crowds of roughly 11,000 for weekend contests, but the actual in house attendance is far less, with swaths of empty seats making for ugly TV visuals.

While owner Peter Karmanos insists that there is no rush to sell his team despite rampant sale rumors, talk down there is rife with the thought that the team could relocate back to Hartford or to the glitzy new arena under construction in Quebec City. Connor who?

In Edmonton, Oilers players think that the team can hit its stride and make a push for the playoffs, despite yet another sluggish start. Star player Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was full of vim and swagger after last Friday’s win in Buffalo, telling the media “I don’t think I’ve been that involved in a game since I’ve been here.” The Oilers trump out improving statistics relating to goal differential, scoring chances attempted and shots on goal and emphatically say that the tide is turning with their stable of young prospects after three difficult seasons.

The Oilers have yet to face western powerhouses, such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Anaheim, but the belief is in the franchise that they can compete against any comers and win now. Connor who?

Columbus was hoping to build on their second-in-history playoff appearance last spring, where yes, they actually won a game in that series. But then their summer bogged down with a nasty contract dispute with one of their up and coming stars, Ryan Johansen. A deal finally got done just as the season opened, and so far Johansen has put up impressive numbers, with 16 points on 6 goals and 10 assists he leads the team.

But the whole public mess has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, and the distraction seems to be affecting the team. The team and fans believe though that their early season swoon is a temporary one and the ship will right itself. Connor who?

Coach Nolan all but apologized to the Sabres fans after last Saturday’s blowout loss to the Penguins. “Our fans pay good money to watch us play. At least compete and perform for that if there’s nothing else. What can you say? We’ve got to find a way.”

“What can you say?...” Attend the games, watch the greatest players on the planet roll into town and toss the Sabres players around like rag dolls, secure in the knowledge that half of this team won’t have jobs in the NHL in three more years. Listen to the players roll out the same lame excuses. Feel sorry for Ted Nolan, who early in the season looks like someone out of answers, uncharacteristic for a man who has had success wherever he has coached. Gawk at HarborCenter. And count the days to early June, when all of Buffalo will be tuning in live to the NHL Network to watch the draft lottery unfold.

Connor who? Connor Mc David. M-C-D-A-V-I-D.

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