Fans & Media Can’t Blame ‘the Tank’ for Sabres’ Woes

When fans ruminate over the Buffalo Sabres’ disappointing 2016-17 regular season, there will be no shortage of people or events to blame for a season that fell well-short of expectations.

Former general manager Tim Murray? Check.

Ex head coach Dan Bylsma? Double check.

Injuries? Definitely.

Inconsistent play, discipline and focus across most of the roster? Most definitely.

‘The Tank’ of 2014-15? Most definitely . . . not.

Contrary to the beliefs of many fans and sports writers such as Bucky Gleason at The Buffalo News or Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe, the tank job that the Sabres pulled in the race for Connor McDavid has very little, if anything, to do with why this team failed to reach the playoffs for the sixth straight season. Allow us to set the record straight on why the tank served its purpose, and can no longer be held over the collective heads of the Buffalo Sabres.

Quick History of ‘the Tank’ & Why it Worked

In case any of you needed your memories refreshed, Tim Murray became the general manager not quite halfway through the Sabres’ 2013-14 season. At the time he was hired, the Sabres were the worst team in the NHL, and in his introductory press conference, he pretty much came right out and announced that the tanking would soon begin when he said:

This team is in last place right now. Everyone can be traded.

And trade them he did! In no particular order, Murray managed to ship Ryan Miller, Steve Ott, Jaroslav Halak, Matt Moulson, Jhonas Enroth, Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers, Chris Stewart, and Michal Neuvirth out of town before the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, just to name a few.

The results? Buffalo finished dead last in the NHL two seasons in a row, successfully drafted Sam Reinhart (second overall pick in 2014) and Jack Eichel (second overall pick in 2015), and accumulated enough assets to swing the trade that brought Ryan O’Reilly into the 716.

No one likes tanking . . . but it worked, folks.  Just as it had worked for the Edmonton Oilers, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a whole slew of teams in all of the professional sports leagues before the Buffalo Sabres decided to give it a try. Blaming it for Buffalo’s inability to make the playoffs in 2017 is nothing more than buyer’s remorse and here’s why.

Sabres Weren’t Conditioned to Lose

All of the fan comments, tweets, or articles that attempt to blame the tank for why the Sabres failed to step an acceptable step forward this season pin the blame on a single culprit: the lack of a culture that embraces winning over losing.

Buffalo Sabres Dan Bylsma
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Bucky Gleason wrote that “Too many players lacked maturity, passion or both before folding in a culture that once accepted – no, encouraged – losing. ” Meanwhile, Fluto Shinzawa claimed that the losing that landed the Sabres their best player in a long, long time was not worth it:

What has accompanied Eichel is a culture of losing, unsurprisingly baked into an organization that was built to give away points.

Essentially, what critics of the tank want to argue is that everyone in the Sabres organization — the front office, the coaching staff, the players, hell even the cleaning staff — have been so conditioned to losing that they wouldn’t know how to win if their life depended on it.

Which is absolute nonsense if you take a few seconds to stop and think about it.

For starters, former head coach Dan Bylsma is not conditioned to lose. Whatever his failings as a coach, you cannot accuse him of finding losing acceptable. Bylsma was brought in AFTER the tank, and his combined career record of 363-225-55 would appear to be enough prove to blow that notion out of the water. The man has won Lord Stanley’s Cup, folks. Once you do that, losing is never acceptable.

Buffalo Sabres, Brian Gionta, NHL, NHL Draft, McDavid
It’s been a frustrating season for Brian Gionta and his Sabres. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

So maybe Bylsma didn’t accept losing, but the players did, right? Well, let’s go through the roster.

The team captain, Brian Gionta? The guy with 112 playoff games and one Stanley Cup on his resume — this guy accepts losing? Uh, no.

Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart? Neither of these guys were a part of the tank, and were winners right up until they skated their first season with the Sabres in 2015-16. Just listen to them talk — do they look and sound like they accept losing?

Rasmus Ristolainen? The blueliner who plays hockey at a very high level in international tournaments — you think the tank conditioned Risto to accept losing?

Then you have all of the other players who, like Eichel and Reinhart, were not even a part of Buffalo’s roster during the tank: Ryan O’Reilly. Kyle Okposo. Jake McCabe. William Carrier. Dmitry Kulikov. Robin Lehner. Anders Nilsson. Taylor Fedun. Cody Franson. Justin Falk. Justin Bailey. Nicholas Baptiste. Evan Rodrigues. Somehow, the tank conditioned all of these players who were not even here for the tank, to lose?

Obviously not.  So who does that leave? Which players were here for the tank, and can we blame them for the Sabres getting accustomed to losing? Well, we have Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons, Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, Josh Gorges, and Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane, who were brought in during the 2014-15 tankathon. Essentially, a collection of bottom-six forwards and two middling defensemen are the leftovers from the tank roster, and we are supposed to believe that they have enough sway in the locker room to condition an entire team to think like losers?

Are you serious? It just is not realistic.

Fortunately, some Sabres fans have a bit of perspective:

Which segues nicely into the final point . . . .

Buffalo’s Roster Still a Work in Progress

Sometimes, the most obvious answers are the ones we overlook. In the case of the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres, though, the explanation for a disappointing season is the obvious one. The roster is filled with players whose styles do not compliment one another, and holes that the front office was still in the process of filling. Both of those problems are the fault of former GM Tim Murray, former coach Dan Bylsma and the NHL salary cap, not the tank.

Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart and Matt Moulson (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

People make it sound as if the tank caused a good team to under-achieve, but let’s be honest — even if the Sabres had avoided some of the serious injuries that hit the roster this season, it is highly doubtful they would have made the playoffs. Why? The same reason why you would not open a shopping mall until the roof was firmly attached to it, or the electrical wiring was complete — it’s an unfinished product. The roster is stronger than before, but it is still missing some key elements here and there.

It really is that simple, everyone.

As our very own Ryan Wolfe pointed out, the Sabres took a sledgehammer to their roster during the tank and are still rebuilding, which is why the team saw the Toronto Maple Leafs blow by them in the standings this year. Ryan’s analogy says it all:

Buffalo has a house but decided to strip everything out of it right down to the copper piping and electrical wire in hopes that they could survive on the absolute bare-minimum during the storm. Toronto had a beat-up house but decided beat-up was OK and made minimal improvements while hoping the walls stayed up as the storm approached.

Holes in the blue line and the top-6 forwards still have to be plugged, and there are a few pieces of deadweight remaining on the roster that have to be tossed aside. Gutting a roster is not the sort of thing you can fix in just 1-2 seasons, and hiring a coach whose style didn’t fit the styles of half his players did not help. But reality got tossed out the window once Edmonton and Toronto beat Buffalo back to the playoffs. Being disappointed in another year without playoff action is fine. Blaming the tank of 2014-15, however, is absurd.