BUFFALO, NY – The Buffalo Sabres are all Drew Stafford has known in the NHL.
He was drafted by them in 2004 and has played all eight of his pro seasons with the franchise. He’s seen them contend for the Stanley Cup. He’s seen them plummet to the bottom of the League standings. He’s seen an all-star team of players leave the city for other markets, including Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek last season, signaling a rebuilding phase for Buffalo.
“I’m not going to guarantee we’re going to make the playoffs,” he said at Sabres training camp on Saturday, ahead of the 2014-15 season.
“I’m not going to guarantee we’re going to lose, either.”
He doesn’t have to. Everyone else outside of the Sabres dressing room already assumes it: That Buffalo’s rebuild would be accelerated greatly with the acquisition of a franchise player in the 2015 NHL Draft, where two such generational talents are expected to go in the top two picks.
That they’ll Dishonor for Connor [McDavid]. That they’ll win jack to win Jack [Eichel].
That they’re going to intentionally tank this season.
“It’s out there. People are going to be talking about it,” acknowledged Stafford. “I can’t accept the fact that we’re going to go into this season and tank. It’s not my makeup as a person or a player.”
And yet one can’t help but notice the Buffalo Sabres – with an owner rich enough to acquire the Buffalo Bills while owning the Buffalo Sabres and pumping millions into Penn State’s hockey program – have the 26th lowest payroll in the NHL.
One couldn’t help but hear Sabres GM Tim Murray protest loudly when the NHL changed its draft lottery rules for next summer, ostensibly targeting Buffalo in doing so.
First Niagara Center is even hosting games featuring Connor McDavid, the brilliant center for the Erie Otters, and Jack Eichel, the standout center for Boston University who will appear in the USA Hockey All-American Prospect Game on Sept. 25.
The Sabres are seriously declaring that this team isn’t set up to have better lottery odds than playoff chances?
“There isn’t an ounce of tanking in my system. Hopefully there isn’t an ounce of tanking in their system either, because if there is, they won’t be playing,” said coach Ted Nolan.
“There’s a sheet of ice out there that you can’t lie on. You can’t hide. If you don’t give a good effort, it sticks out like a sore thumb.”
Stafford notes that for all the tank talk, the team acquired a few veteran players this offseason that will make the Sabres better than the 52-point calamity they were in 2013-14.
“Those guys probably take that personally,” said Stafford, “[people saying] they signed here and came here to lose.”
Defenseman Josh Gorges waived his no-trade clause to allow the Montreal Canadiens to move him to the Sabres in July. “I knew I was going to need a fresh start somewhere. Why not go to an organization where they’re having a fresh start too?” he said.
“We’re not trying to rebuild this season. We’re trying to win games. That’s our mindset and our mentality. We brought in enough guys where we’re going to be able to get the job done.”
This doesn’t sound like tanking.
“I know I’m new here. But if I hear or see anyone thinking we’re going to lose on purpose …”
Gorges stopped to consider his words.
“That’s not going to fly. That’s not what we’re here for.”
Winger Brian Gionta was Gorges’s captain with the Montreal Canadiens before signing with the Sabres this summer. He’s also someone apparently too proud to tank.
“That’s not in my nature. I’ve missed the playoffs one time in my career. I plan on keeping it that way,” he said.
Chris Stewart was acquired by the Sabres last season from the St. Louis Blues. He’s one of eight potential free agents next summer – Stafford is another – that are looking to make their mark this season. He was also one of the first Sabres to speak out against any notion of tanking earlier this summer, saying it “wasn’t in my DNA.”
“I’m here in a contract year. I’m trying to make the best case I can. Finishing out of the playoffs and in last place isn’t a good case to make,” he said.
To that end, Stewart believes the Sabres are going to be a pain to play for Eastern Conference foes. “It’s not going to be Point Night. Some guys are going to come in here thinking it’s Point Night against the Sabres, and that’s in the past.”
Matt Moulson played for the Sabres for part of last season, coming from the New York Islanders in the Thomas Vanek trade and then getting shipped out to Minnesota at the trade deadline. He signed with the Sabres out of a desire to move back East, but also because of the respect he had for ownership and management in his time with the team.
“Tim and Teddy and their staff have done a great job of putting guys in place. Everyone uses the words ‘rebuild, rebuild’ but I think we’re going to be a pretty competitive team,” he said.
So it sounds like he’s not going to tank, either.
“You can use it as motivation,” said Moulson. “Myself, I’ve been told I’m not good enough forever. No matter what I do, I have that chip on my shoulder. A lot of us do. Seeing that stuff enlarges [the chip] even more.”
With due respect to the new guys, there are thousands of Sabres fans that have suffered through decades of winning, losing and rebuilding cycles.
They’re proud, too.
But they’re also realists.
It was only appropriate that Scott Banach was wearing his Taro Tsujimoto jersey to the 2014 Buffalo Sabres training camp: Honoring an imaginary player that the team drafted in 1974, prior to a season whose biggest mystery surrounds a hypothetical draft pick.
“I don’t want them to tank,” said Banach. “But the fact of the matter is that this was a last place team last year. It’s harder to go from worst to first in hockey. I could see us do it in 2-3 years.”
Gabrielle Banach, seated next to him at the glass while the Sabres skated, agreed. “I don’t want us to be 30. Maybe 28th or 29th would work [next season],” she said.
Many of the Buffalo fans we spoke to voiced some variation of this desire. That they were OK with the Sabres losing, but not in an embarrassing fashion, and not for a lack of effort.
It’s not exactly rooting against them, but … well, it’s not exactly believing that the playoffs would be more beneficial than building a franchise around Connor McDavid for the next decade.
Even Stafford acknowledged the theory’s merit: The worse the Sabres do, the better they might be down the line.
“Absolutely. And I understand that there are going to be fans out there who, unfortunately, might be cheering for us to tank. And that’s really too bad,” he said.
“We have to focus our energy on the fans who come and support us and want to see us do well. Focus our energy on putting on a good product for them. The people who pay hard-earned money to come watch us play.”
Of course, there is another option.
“It’s better for everyone if the Islanders lose this season, and the Sabres win this season,” said Buffalo fan James Mohr.
The conditions of the Vanek trade assured the Sabres of New York’s first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, as the Islanders opted to keep their pick in the 2014 draft.
Banach believes misery loves company. “I’d also like the Islanders to finish way out of the money too, so we can get McDavid and Eichel.”
If there’s one argument against the notion that the Sabres will mail it in this season, its name is Ted Nolan.
The mind strains to conceive a tanking scenario for Nolan, who waited five years to get another crack at the NHL after waiting nine years between his first stint with Buffalo and his next job with the Islanders in 2006.
This is a man who coached the Latvian national team to rebuild his reputation.
This is not a man for whom “tanking” is a thing that happens.
“I stopped listening to that talk a long time ago. They only thing you listen to is your heart,” he said.
What Nolan believes is that everything happens for a reason. The Sabres might not be a playoff team – yet. They may not dramatically turn around last season’s record. But what they will do is compete, hard, every night, because that’s Ted Nolan hockey.
It was the way he coached way back in his first big gig, behind the bench of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. When he took over mid-season in 1988, the team finished in last place. But he respected them for their effort. They worked hard, every night.
“We ended up drafting Eric Lindros,” recalled Nolan.
Granted, Lindros didn’t report to the Soo, as was the Lindros way as a young entitled player. So they traded his rights to Oshawa in 1989, and used some of the spoils from that trade to turn their fortunes around to win the 1991 Memorial Cup.
“Things happen for a reason. At the end of the day, whatever’s meant to be is meant to be,” said Nolan.
Moulson, for one, believes the Sabres aren’t meant to be the team with the best lottery odds this season -- and that they certainly aren't going to intentionally improve them.
“I don’t think Tim [Murray] put us together to lose. And I’ve never played a game wanting to lose it. I’ve never let anyone ever win a game at anything,” he said.
“Not even to my wife.”