A decade of futility, rot and failure, on and off the ice.
“Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ sole reason for existence is to win the Stanley Cup.”
The last time we looked, owner Terry Pegula’s dramatic words were still etched on the wall right near the player’s tunnel leading from the locker room to the ice at KeyBank Center.
It was ten years ago this week when new owner Terry Pegula formally took possession of the Buffalo Sabres and other assets connected to the franchise. He paid roughly $210MM to Tom Golisano and minority partners. When Pegula stepped on to the ice with his two sons at that first game as the owner (February 23, 2011, against the Atlanta Thrashers), he was greeted by the legendary French Connection players Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert, and Rick Martin, players he often referred to as his childhood idols.
The hope and excitement amongst Sabres fans was palpable. The franchise had slid into a funk following the 2007 departure of superstars Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, and Golisano’s interest in being a hands-on owner seemed to go away as his attentions went elsewhere and his wallet tightened more and more.
The team went on a tear, posting a 13-3-3 record for the months of March and April, propelling the team to 7th seed and a playoff appearance against the Philadelphia Flyers. Many felt that the presence and influence of a new owner, promising unlimited funds for coaching, for scouting, for facility improvements, was just what the Sabres would need to put them back on top of the hockey world.
New team president Ted Black even coined the term “Hockey Heaven” as the new-look Buffalo Sabres was rolled out.
Hockey Heaven? It’s been anything but.
The Sabres and Flyers went seven games that year before losing 5-2 in the final game in Philadelphia. The most galling memory happened in game 6, when the Flyers’ Ville Leino scored in overtime here in Buffalo to force a game seven. Enough to impress then General Manager Darcy Regier, who signed Leino to a contract with the team just three months later.
Leino ended up with 46 points in 137 games as a Buffalo Sabre, before his career came to a merciful end via buyout. His hit on the salary cap just ended last year.
The Leino contract was just one of many, many inglorious moments that the Buffalo Sabres and their supporters have had to endure during the past decade. As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Pegula Era at One Seymour Knox Plaza, we look back on out top ten list of the worst moments during that time, going from 10 to 1…
#10 Boston’s Milan Lucic takes a run at Ryan Miller, November 8, 2011
Some might say that the team has never recovered from that play, where bad boy Lucic took a clear and intentional run at Ryan Miller following a breakaway attempt on the goaltender. Nobody on the Sabres squad answered to defend Miller, Lucic taunted the fans as he laughed his way to the penalty box to serve a 2 minute penalty, and following the game Miller referred to Lucic as “gutless” and “piece of shit”. Yet Sabres enforcers such as Cody McCormick, Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad or Steve Montador never stepped up to avenge that hit.
#9 Dominik Hasek’s awful induction ceremony, January 13, 2015
The raising of banners to the rafters are cherished and hallowed ceremonies in most places, bringing out elaborately staged and scripted ceremonies involving former teammates, hockey VIPs, well-produced videos, music and light shows. Yet here in Buffalo, they left one of the greatest goalies to ever play the game to fend for himself, awkwardly stepping out onto the ice, alone, to deliver some forced comments of appreciation, and then the quick unfurling of the banner itself. And that was it. Meanwhile, on the west coast at that same time, Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne was being feted with an elaborate banner ceremony befitting a player of that stature.
#8 The many swings and misses by front office management
Hasek’s snub is just one of many front office gaffes.
A hideous alternate jersey unveiled in 2013 is forever known as “The Turdburger”.
Additionally, the team has gone to great lengths to wipe clean almost all displays and historical artifacts of the team history and Buffalo sports memorabilia from the arena spaces (why have a Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame display next to the team store when you can better use the space for clearance clothing racks).
At a promotion billed as “90s night” a couple years back, some former players were presented jerseys with their names spelled incorrectly.
And in a league where most teams have raised the bar for ever more exciting game night presentation, here in Buffalo we are subjected to the horrible screeching of an entertainer who calls himself “DJ Milk”, yet some decision maker in our front office apparently thinks of this music making as the bees knees.
Upon taking over the team, Pegula famously stated that if he needed to raise money to fund the team he’d “just go out and drill another oil well”. During the decade the team has raised ticket prices several times, once rolling out the announcement one day after another disastrous season had ended and players had yet to clear out their possessions.
Granted, the team works under a complicated formula where they need to reach certain revenue targets to qualify for revenue sharing. But with a customer base mired in this failure, a 2.5% Sabrebucks rebate to watch this team play just doesn’t cut it.
#7 Mike Babcock shuns Buffalo, May 20, 2015
Following Buffalo’s result in the Draft Lottery that year, General Manager Tim Murray desperately needed a win. Seeking a marquee head coach, he set his sights for Detroit’s Mike Babcock. There were tours, interviews, feting of Babcock here in Buffalo, and all signals pointed to Babcock coming to the Sabres and bringing his winning strategies to the team.
It all came crashing down when Babcock abruptly announced that he was instead accepting the head coaching job with the Toronto Maple Leafs, an eight year deal worth $50MM, making him the highest paid coach in NHL history. The Sabres would have to “settle” for former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who also had a Stanley Cup ring to his credit from 2009. Bylsma would last two seasons as Sabres coach before being fired in 2017.
#6 The boxcar contracts that turned out to be busts
Hindsight is always 20-20 when it comes to looking back on what ifs for players that should have or could have been drafted or signed. Yet for the past decade the Sabres have always managed to have that one millstone around the organization’s neck, sucking up salary cap space, underperforming, and most likely affecting the psyche and culture of the locker room, who shared space and presence with a teammate who was vastly overpaid yet under producing. Here is the timeline…
Ville Leino. Signed as free agent in 2011 to a 6 year $27 million contract. In his second year with the team he hardly played due to injury, and in his third year recorded ZERO goals in 58 games played before being shown the door.
Matt Moulson. Brought in to the team in 2014 via trade for Thomas Vanek, he was given a 5 year, $25 MM contract, and for that sum, the Sabres got 35 goals scored over three seasons. Things got so bad, that the team shipped him out on loan to the AHL Ontario Reign in fall of 2017, where they continued to pay his contract.
Kyle Okposo. Signing a 7 year, $42MM contract with the Sabres in 2016, Okposo’s numbers and production have gone down each season. He remains on the team and has yet to score his first goal this season.
Jeff Skinner. Traded to the Sabres from the Carolina Hurricanes and joining the team for the 2018-2019 season, Skinner was a terror on the ice, scoring 40 goals and earning team MVP honors. The Sabres rewarded Skinner with an 8 year, $72MM contract. Since then Skinner has disappeared. He was a healthy scratch for the first time in his playing career just this week.
#5 The IIHF World Juniors returns and crashes, December 26, 2017
When the World Juniors made its first appearance in Buffalo in 2010-2011, the event created such a buzz that the organization made a goal of bringing back the event as soon as a USA based venue became eligible. That became the 2017-2018 season.
Some might say that HarborCenter was designed specifically to host the World Juniors. A main arena and smaller venue within immediate proximity, six new hotels online in downtown Buffalo to host the teams and spectators. And the best of all? The first ever outdoor game to take place at New Era Field in Orchard Park between the USA and Canada.
The outdoor game was a big success. The rest of the tournament? Not so much. Overpriced tickets and concessions, a horrific cold snap which rendered Buffalo weather as inhospitable to outdoor events (the outdoor Fanfest at Canalside was a total bust), and organizers miscalculating the factor of a bad exchange rate for the Canadian dollar and the impact that led to reduced attendances from Canadian patrons.
Anyone expecting this tournament to return to Buffalo when it’s USA’s turn again? Didn’t think so.
#4 Jack Eichel losing his passion for the game, Present
This is an unfolding story and it is not a good one. As this crazy pandemic year continues to cause havoc on the organization, both on and off the ice, all eyes are on team captain Jack Eichel.
In his five seasons with the team, he has put up impressive numbers. The most recent season was his best one yet, tallying 36 goals and even a four goal night, yet his leadership as captain has been called into question and his body language suggests that this is a role he might not be suited for.
At the conclusion of last season, he told the press, “Listen. I’m fed up with the losing and I’m frustrated. It’s been a tough couple months and a tough five years. I want to win the Stanley Cup every time I start the season. I’d be lying if I said I’m not getting frustrated with the way things are going.”
Just as in the O’Reilly case, is it time for an intervention, right from the top? Media reports are starting to speculate about possible trades, and chatter amongst fans also brings up discussion points for what was once considered unthinkable… to send Eichel packing from the Sabres in what would be his prime playing years.
#3 Pat LaFontaine is shown the door, March 2, 2014
Just three months prior, the team had fired long time General Manager Darcy Regier and the execrable and awful head coach Ron Rolston. Coming out from behind the curtain were two of the most cherished and beloved figures in Sabres history… the return of Ted Nolan as head coach, and former player Pat LaFontaine as President of Hockey Operations. LaFontaine then went on to hire Tim Murray as the new General Manager.
The move brought joy and anticipation to many of the Sabres faithful, assured that these two men would restore a winning culture to an organization that had lost its way.
It all came crashing down just three months later when LaFontaine abruptly departed. The official reason explained by team president Ted Black was that LaFontaine wanted to resume his work within the league front office. Yet many unconfirmed stories emerged from within the organization that he was disrespected by ownership and could not cobble healthy working relationships with the owners and their sycophants in other executive positions.
LaFontaine has never publicly commented as to what exactly went down. His name still hangs from a banner atop the KeyBank Center rafters. He is arguably the most beloved player to ever wear a Sabres uniform and is still revered by most fans. Sadly, almost seven years have passed and he has yet to return and set foot on Sabres property.
#2 The 2014-2015 season “tank” year
Tim Murray engineered and executed what is now looked upon as the most destructive strategy in the franchise’s history.
The team would deliberately be awful. In fact, so awful, that they would land at the bottom of the standings and bring to Buffalo Murray’s man crush… Connor McDavid of the OHL Erie Otters, pretty much recognized as THE prize in the upcoming player draft.
Murray’s obsession to get McDavid to Buffalo was so over the top, that the team even hosted a game of the Otters at the arena that October, to showcase McDavid to the Buffalo fans.
Fans for the most part bought into the strategy, and on many a night at home games one could see fans clad in Buffalo jerseys rooting for the visiting team. The Sabres went 0-12 in the month in January, finishing dead last in the league with a 23-51-8 record and 58 points. Nine different goaltenders dressed for the Sabres during that lost season, including a game where a front office staffer at HarborCenter was given a one day contract and sat on the bench as the back up goaltender. You can’t make this stuff up!
Murray’s strategy landed with a thud in April of 2015, when on NHL Draft Lottery Day the top pick was awarded to the Edmonton Oilers, leaving Buffalo with second pick and the other “generational” pick, Jack Eichel. There were even reports that Murray quietly approached the Oilers to engineer a trade to swap picks in that draft. The Oilers weren’t interested. They had their man. Leaving Murray to explain to Eichel that he was the guy the Sabres wanted all along.
#1 Ryan O’Reilly wins a Stanley Cup and MVP… for St. Louis, June 12, 2019
Ryan O’Reilly was the heart and soul of a team trying to find its way, despite the near-simultaneous arrival and presence of “generational” player Jack Eichel. His arrival in 2015 was immediately followed by off ice drama, as he was charged with drunk driving and crashing into a Tim Horton’s restaurant in Ontario.
Following another losing season, his third with the team, O’Reilly came clean on locker cleanout day. “We’re stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing. It’s disappointing. It’s sad. I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times. It’s just eating us up and it’s tough,” said O’Reilly.
Looking back on this now, O’Reilly’s candor was a cry for help and needed intervention from the coach to then General Manager Jason Botterill to the owner. Instead, the Sabres traded him to St. Louis for a slew of players. Only Tage Thompson remains from that trade. As for O’Reilly, he rediscovered his love for the game with the Blues, leading them to a Stanley Cup championship the following season and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.