Welcome to the first day of February. You’ve made it through the long month of January. The days are getting longer. The hockey becomes more meaningful by each passing game. Most importantly, business starts to pick up around the NHL.
The Columbus Blue Jackets and Buffalo Sabres open their February schedule with a matinee at KeyBank Center. The Blue Jackets are coming off their bye while the Sabres are looking to get back on the winning track after dropping their first two home games post bye.
The story of each team this season has been the way they’ve handled their business when things didn’t go according to plan. It couldn’t be more different.
The Blue Jackets could have folded up when their season started horribly. They couldn’t score goals. They couldn’t stay healthy. There was frustration on all levels of the team. Doubters felt good about writing them off. But the team collected themselves and turned their season around thanks to many heroes. They’re now ready to fight for a spot in the postseason.
Then there’s the Sabres. They had a good start to their season. But then they fell on hard times. But unlike the Blue Jackets, they haven’t been able to turn things around. As such, they are falling off the playoff pace and are in danger of missing a ninth-straight postseason. To say it’s a critical game for them Saturday is an understatement. If they hope to make a push, they have to take care of business at home.
One team is in the fight for a fourth-straight trip to the playoffs. The other is still searching for answers. We have a case of contrasting cultures facing off on Saturday.
The Blue Jackets Culture
This is one of the Blue Jackets’ major strengths as a franchise. Their current culture is a winning one. It resonates from top-to-bottom.
Ownership is in the background but is committed to winning. Management led by Jarmo Kekalainen his staff work tirelessly to put a winning product on the ice. They have a handle on the heartbeat of the team and what it needs. The players take ownership of themselves no matter what goes on around them. Their actions resonate throughout the locker room. There is a sense of commitment and dedication to improvement and winning every day.
Getting to this point didn’t happen overnight for the Blue Jackets. It took putting people in the right places and then a commitment to patience to build them brick-by-brick. There were many bumps in the road including the firing of a head coach (Todd Richards) but the plan has endured and the Blue Jackets are reaping the rewards.
The key for Columbus has been draft and develop. It sounds cliche but it’s the cornerstone of the Blue Jackets. Then when opportunity presented itself, the team made trades or signed free agents. The right mix has brought levels of success not seen before with this franchise.
The Blue Jackets are doing things the right way. It’s no wonder success has come to them now and for years to come.
The Sabres Culture
Now we visit the other side of the story. The Sabres are on the fast track to the golf course again this spring. The things you see going on with the Blue Jackets are not happening with the Sabres.
Those that follow the Sabres closely have questioned ownership’s approach. They’ve endured changes in coaching and management without seeing an uptick in success. Despite landing premier talents in Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, the Sabres have issues in all other areas of their team that need desperately addressed.
When things have fallen off the rails, there hasn’t been an answer or a response that has instilled confidence that things are or will be different. The Sabres have the makings of a team just going through the motions knowing what their ultimate fate this season will be.
Imagine watching this team from 2011-current. There hasn’t been one playoff game to celebrate. There hasn’t been much reason for hope outside of the potential of Eichel and Dahlin but even that has faded. If they can’t turn things around, you know something’s wrong on a much bigger level. Averaging just 29 wins and 70 points per full 82-game season for almost a decade indicates something is desperately wrong.
The question for the Sabres now is how they choose to address this. They should take a page from the Blue Jackets. They need to make draft and develop a part of their culture. They need to make accountability as normal as everyday breathing. Sadly these things are missing in Buffalo and fans have had enough.
The good news is that Saturday is a new day and February is a new month. The Sabres have a chance to look ahead and to win some important games. But if they can’t bring everyone together and find a way soon, the end of this season will bring nothing but pain and emptiness to a fan base who’s sick and tired of the current status quo. If things are going to truly change, ownership and management need to take drastic steps to make that happen.
The Blue Jackets and Sabres play an important game Saturday but their paths to this game couldn’t have been more different. Their cultures are currently polar opposites of each other. If there is hope for the Sabres, it’s that it took the Blue Jackets 12 years to finally turn their fortunes around. So it can happen but only if there’s a commitment to excellence by everyone from top to bottom.
The culture in the locker room is more important than ever in hockey. For the Blue Jackets and Sabres, their culture has defined their recent results. The Blue Jackets need to keep on the road they’ve started on. The Sabres need to look in the mirror and make a decision. If it’s ever going to turn around, they must fix their culture soon. Or else, put the Sabres on the million-year plan. Because in that case, things aren’t changing any time soon.