Tuesday night, the Buffalo Sabres picked up their first win of the 2013-14 season. That’s a good thing, right? Well, yeah, if it weren’t the Sabres’ eighth game. So I’m going to go with “maybe not so good.”
None of this should be all that surprising, though. After all, this was supposed to be a bad team. They traded away veteran talent at the trade deadline and filled it with young talent that still needs to develop and learn the ways of the NHL.
So to those freaking out over the results so far, calling for the heads of anyone with any semblance of authority, or calling to trade everyone including the trainer: take a chill pill. Curb your expectations, accept that this season is a wash, and hope the Sabres are bad enough to land a franchise-changing player in the draft in the summer. Ask the Avalanche how they feel about being bad enough to get the first pick. They don’t particularly care too much because they’re 6-0-0 right now.
Amidst all the negatives, here are five positives to take away from the Sabres season so far:
The Kids Will Be Alright
The Sabres are stocked with young, highly drafted talent. That’s not worth talking about, though. It’s that everyone who roots for the blue and gold seems to expect that they turn this terrible team around from day one and that’s just completely unrealistic.
Currently in the lineup: Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Mark Pysyk are all in their first or second seasons. Tyler Ennis is just 24-years-old and clearly has exciting, dynamic talent. It’s just a matter of getting him some support. Cody Hodgson is 23 and arguably the Sabres’ best offensive player.
That’s not even counting the guys in the system who all figure to be apart of the Sabres lineup some day: Joel Armia, Nikita Zadorov, JT Compher, Brayden McNabb, Justin Bayley, Chad Ruhwedel, plus whoever they add in the draft.
The Sabres, on paper, have a very bright future but it’s a matter of head coach Ron Rolston giving these guys the opportunity to succeed now. Give them the ice time and the situations to succeed. Let them learn and grow instead of limiting their ice time or sticking them with dead weight like Patrick Kaleta or John Scott.
Now just imagine how this group will look if they land a top-three pick in the draft this upcoming year.
The Goaltending Is There
Can someone, anyone, start scoring goals for poor Ryan Miller? I’m sure if he could, he’d do that, too.
Through the first five starts of his season, Miller has seen the most shots and turned the most away. He’s posted a very solid 2.39 GAA and an outstanding .939 save percentage in the face of all that rubber. The fact that the man has one win to his name is a travesty.
At 33-years-old, Miller entered the season with a ton of questions facing him: is he on the downside of his career at 33? Will he be a Sabre after this year? Could he regain the form that won him the 2010 Vezina Trophy?
So far, he’s been incredible and would be garnering far more buzz if the Sabres could muster any goals in front of him. A little perspective: their 4-3 shootout victory over the Islanders was just the second time in eight games this season that they’ve scored more than one goal. They were close to tying a franchise-record for offensive futility through their first six games. It’s bad.
If the Sabres right the ship at all, it will be on the back of Miller. He was very good last year despite what the numbers and the standings said. He was also in the top two in shots against last year. Maybe the Sabres should work on limiting shots?
Being Really Bad Has Its Perks
As mentioned above, the Sabres are really, really bad this season. But that’s not for nothing. Sometimes, being bad is the path to being really, really good. Look at the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Years of futility allowed them to stockpile players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane. That’s the perk to being bad: you get guys who can potentially change the face of your franchise.
The biggest issue with the Sabres in recent memory is that when they’ve been bad, they just haven’t been bad enough to get that franchise changer. No offense to Ristolainen, but I was hoping for one of the top three or four guys in the 2013 draft for the Sabres. Look how Nathan MacKinnon is working out for the Avalanche, after all.
Finishing in the basement could be what the Sabres need to get going the other way. They have a nice little stockpile of young talent both in Buffalo and in the system, but an elite prospect, a franchise-changer, could get some excitement back in Buffalo and get a sorely needed cornerstone. And hell, if they’re in position to draft someone like Sam Reinhart, maybe Thomas Vanek thinks about finishing his days out in Buffalo?
It’s not so bad being bad after all.
There’s No Questioning The Effort
Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? If you’re not a Sabres fan, you wouldn’t get it. The last few years under Lindy Ruff, the team looked disinterested, disengaged, and couldn’t put together 60 minutes of effort if their professional lives depended on it.
Now? They might be losing, but it’s not for a lack of effort. Six of their eight games so far have been decided by one goal. The Sabres are busting their tails and are only seeing failure because they don’t have enough experienced talent. When these youngsters grow and figure out how to win, they’ll be a dangerous group.
Granted, this team still can’t put 60 minutes of complete hockey to save their lives. It’s at least 20 minutes of “oh crap, what do we do?” and hoping Miller is Superman enough to bail them out. Lately, it’s been more of a strong , consistent effort and a good deal of pressure. They’re starting to figure it out a little bit and you can see the results.
Rolston may not be the guy long-term, but he’s the guy to get the maximum effort out of this young team.
They Still Have An Owner Willing To Try
I can’t emphasize this enough.
Maybe I’m still not used to the fact that Terry Pegula cares about this team, wants to see it get better, and is willing to spend to make it happen. Maybe I’m still having flashbacks to the days when Dominik Hasek and Michael Peca were shipped out of town simply because management couldn’t afford their best players anymore.
I know, I know. Spending isn’t going to solve everything. It isn’t going to solve anything if it’s not done right. And I certainly hear you people bringing up the Ville Leino signing. At least they tried.
It’s also because of their willingness to spend that the best defenseman on the team (Christian Ehrhoff) is there and perhaps others will see that in the future and be willing to come to Buffalo. Small steps, but steps no less.
It’s tough being a Sabres fan right now and the frustration is understandable. But keep in mind where this team is: bereft of stars, a dearth of experienced talent. A young team learning how to survive in the NHL before they learn how to thrive.
Be patient. Be accepting. And keep an eye towards the future.
Ryan is a lead writer for The Hockey Writers as well as editor for Mile High Sticking and co-owner of The Farm Club. Follow him on Twitter to discuss all things puck, Bills football, or his hatred of all things Philly