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Sabres Undaunted in the Race to the Bottom

Through the Looking Glass

In the bizarre world that is the 2014-2015 NHL season, up is now down, black is now white, two plus two equals five, and losing is winning. That is what it has come to as the Buffalo Sabres capped off their role on NHL trade deadline day by pretty much cementing the notion that everyone has believed, yet no one is willing to admit.

The race for 30th place is hitting its final stretch.

For Buffalo, it is the opportunity to draft that generational player, the bonafide superstar to build a franchise around. The last place finisher will be guaranteed a first or second pick in the draft—Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are the prizes.

So depending on who you talk to, you will get a range of emotions and opinions as to the plan, or as the Sabres front office likes to call it, “The Blueprint.”

Sabres general manager Tim Murray was resolute and defiant as he met the press this past Monday, following an exhausting and emotional day where four Sabres players were sent away in trades. Gone were Michal Neuvirth, Torey Mitchell, Chris Stewart and Brian Flynn. Three of the four were to become unrestricted free agents and most likely would have been gone anyway. What the Sabres received in return were two minor league quality players—goaltender Chad Johnson and forward Jack Nevins, along with four draft choices spread over the 2016 and 2017 drafts.

Murray insisted that there has been no organizational mandate to tank, that when he took the reins of the team 13 months ago, the organization was in full rebuild mode and that he has continued to execute that rebuild in the way he knows best.

For Coach Ted Nolan, it seems to be a different story, as it is becoming increasingly evident that he has had disagreements with how this plan has been executed.

Last week, the Sabres recalled defenseman Mark Pysyk from Rochester. Mind you, many believe that when this team climbs back from the abyss, it will be Pysyk who will stand out as the Sabres’ elite defenseman.

In the three games that Pysyk played here, the team went 2-0-1, Pysyk scored a goal, and the improvement at the blue line was definitely noticeable. When asked if it would be a difficult decision to send Pysyk back to Rochester after his stellar play, Nolan replied, “No, no. Not difficult. Not difficult for me.” Clearly, Nolan would love to keep Pysyk in a Sabres uniform.

Pysyk was sent back to Rochester this past weekend.

For the fans, a mixed reaction. At the last home game against Vancouver, a game in which Buffalo was expected to lose easily, it was anything but as the team posted a 6-3 win. Of course, Buffalo fans were cheering the goals. And it was fun dispatching those loudmouthed fans from just across the border who seem to have the jerseys of seven Canadian teams hanging in their closets.

Yet amidst the win was a feeling of trepidation. On the out of town scoreboard came the news that the Arizona Coyotes had blown a two goal lead against the Rangers and lost in regulation. The gap between the Sabres and Coyotes for last place was down to four points.

The Coyotes. While Buffalo seems to get all the attention and scorn around the league for its attempts to tank the season, the Coyotes have been quietly doing the same thing, Coyotes general manger Don Maloney (Helped along by his assistant Darcy Regier, remember him?) sounded much like Murray as he said “We’re gaining assets that in three, four, five years will put us in position to win the Stanley Cup.” Their team unloaded stars Antoine Vermette, Zbynek Michalek and Keith Yandle to stockpile draft picks. On the ice they are in a death spiral, having lost and lost ugly pretty much all of this past month.

And that brings us to March. Sabres fans continue to pack the First Niagara Center and have supported the team despite the disappointing season, and will now watch a ragtag collection of leaders and regulars and prospects compete and entertain. Playing between the pipes will be two goaltenders who rank 71st and 78th in the NHL, and who nobody in Buffalo would even recognize.

The goal? To finish dead last.

So what Sabres fans will have to look forward to is sort of a “reverse relegation.” In most world soccer leagues, the teams at the bottom of the standings fight to avoid relegation to a lower tiered league, and that often provides intriguing matchups and drama as seasons reach their conclusions. Here in Buffalo, fans will continue cheering for their team, albeit in a muted sort of way, while watching the out of town scores and monitoring the progress of rivals Edmonton and Arizona.

What emerges as key games that could decide this race happen on March 26 and March 30, when the Sabres and Coyotes square off home and home. The dynamics and drama of that first game in Buffalo will be off the charts, the player and fan reactions intense, and will showcase the craziness that this season has become in all its glory.

The Sabres ticket office really blew it when they priced this as a “value” game.

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