The Wysh List: Why the Buffalo Sabres are the NHL’s biggest disaster
Peter Tripi is a passionate Buffalo Sabres fan, something increasingly rare for the moribund franchise.
The kind of fan who shouts “Buffalo’s on the rise!” because it fires up other people, and because it’s what he inherently believed about his team. His family used to have season tickets before the resale market dried up like the Sahara; he said “tickets were selling for half the price of a slice of pizza in the arena” for Buffalo’s 6-1 embarrassment at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche this week. No doubt the pizza was more satisfying, even at double the price.
The kind of fan who isn’t as long-suffering as some but has suffered enough, having fallen in love with the Sabres right before the humbling exodus of stars Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in free agency in 2007. “I thought that was the worst thing to happen in the city,” Tripi said. “But now, after nearly nine years with zero important games here, I realize we are living in the worst period of the Buffalo Sabres.”
As Lizzo sang, truth hurts: With a 1.1% chance of qualifying for the playoffs (per Money Puck), this will be the ninth consecutive season without the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference playoffs, despite the third-largest current salary-cap hit in the NHL. They’ve had six coaches and three general managers in those nine years. They’ve had one generational talent, Jack Eichel, who has yet to appear in a playoff game. They’ve had only two primary owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, who took over the Sabres in February 2011 to much fanfare and optimism.
“Starting today,” Terry Pegula said at his introductory news conference, “the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup.”
Talk about your existential crisis …
There might not be a bigger disaster as an organization in the NHL right now than the Sabres, when you combine a lack of postseason appearances, organizational turmoil, wasted assets and opportunity, and a growing revolution among the fans. Consider that the Ottawa Senators have had roster sell-offs and sexual harassment scandals and cyberbullying scandals and players caught on a hidden camera badmouthing coaches and an owner with an outright adversarial relationship with his own fans … and they still have a clearer path back to contention than do the Sabres.
That’s really saying something.
The toxicity of the Sabres’ lack of success is beginning to seep into the marketplace. Buffalo’s average tickets distributed per game is 17,146 (90.8% capacity), down from 17,908 (93.9%) last season. In the Pegulas’ first full season as owner, it was 18,550 (99.9%).
Some of the passionate supporters are becoming dispassionate, while others like Peter Tripi are just downright angry. And he believes it’s time to show ownership and management how angry they are.
On Saturday at 11 a.m. ET, Tripi is organizing a Sabres fan protest called Pack The Plaza. It’s a protest with a scattershot of gripes, but one in particular the Buffalo fans appear to share: the public absenteeism of owners Terry and Kim Pegula.
“There has been zero acknowledgment from the Pegulas in response to the state of play, over what is almost a nine-year drought. From this protest, we want an acknowledgement from the management that they know what’s happening and that they are trying to fix it,” said Tripi, whose Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since a first-round exit in 2011.
“And we want the players to know we support them. We love Jack Eichel and this roster, no matter the record. But the inaction of this management [group] and the disinterest of ownership has wasted every single season with him on the roster.”
Duane Steinel is also a passionate Sabres fan. You might not have heard of him, but you might have heard him. He’s the “Duane” who called in to WGR-AM 550 in Buffalo on Jan. 29 and unleashed a rant that made news around the NHL, lamenting the lack of public participation from the Pegulas.
“I don’t need a Jerry Jones type of owner. I need [an] owner who’s going to answer the fans when they misspell names on jerseys and have … knockoffs on alumni! What is going on? What are we doing? … Have they ever sucked the passion out of you like they have me?” he asked as his voice hit a crescendo.
(The “knockoffs” is in reference to the jersey worn by the venerable Danny Gare for an alumni event. The misspellings were a reference to the goofs on jerseys for Mike Robitaille and Dave Andreychuk. While the optics are bad, Gare’s jersey was one he purchased on his own, Robitaille’s was also his own and the team caught its misspelling of “Andreychuk” and replaced the jersey at that event.)
“I don’t need a damn camera in front of Terry Pegula every single day, but address our concerns! Be there when you screw up! Answer for the mistakes! Be accountable!” Steinel bellowed.
Where are the owners on all of this? Sabres general manager Jason Botterill told WGR this week that the Pegulas are “frustrated” with the path of the team: “To put it bluntly, my conversations with Terry and Kim, they’re frustrated with the results. They want better results, and the dialogue goes to, ‘What are the solutions? What are we doing to get better?'”
Botterill was hired in May 2017 after helping to build three Stanley Cup champions as part of Pittsburgh Penguins management. He inherited a rebuild from Tim Murray, the first general manager the Pegulas hired, and essentially the Sabres entered this bizarre, “Inception”-like rebuild inside a rebuild. Botterill hired head coach Phil Housley, a well-respected assistant from the Nashville Predators who didn’t have the stuff to handle the bigger gig. Botterill then hired Ralph Krueger as head coach, and he’s the best thing about the 2019-20 Sabres not named “Jack Eichel,” but even he can’t spin gold out of raw sewage.
Botterill’s transaction history has not helped the Sabres get better:
His first lottery pick was Casey Mittelstadt, No. 8 in 2017, currently in the AHL.
He got virtually nothing for trading Evander Kane.
He traded Ryan O’Reilly for Patrik Berglund, who quit the team; Tage Thompson, who has 12 points in 66 games with the Sabres; veteran depth center Vladimir Sobotka; and draft pick Ryan Johnson … who was 31st overall because O’Reilly won the Selke, the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe in his first season with the St. Louis Blues.
He lucked out because Jeff Skinner made a geographically influenced choice to accept a trade to Buffalo, and then Botterill inexplicably handed Skinner $9 million annually over eight seasons, with a full no-movement clause, despite having the reputation as a salary-cap savant. Skinner has 11 goals in 42 games this season, after scoring 40 goals in 82 games in a contract year.
I like Botterill. I’ve always felt he’d make a good general manager and still do, whether that’s in Buffalo or somewhere else. But outside of having the lottery balls bounce to getting No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin in 2018, there hasn’t been much dramatic improvement to the Sabres’ roster on his watch — and on some of the biggest swings he has taken, some haven’t even left the infield. Some want to blame the players. I don’t know how the general manager doesn’t get a considerable amount of it as well.
But while some fans are wondering if his tenure should end, we have to ask: “To what end?” Another GM? Another, different rebuild, inside a rebuild that was already inside of another rebuild? There’s an argument to be made that the best thing for the Sabres right now is some semblance of consistency — although that could end up being the dictionary definition of insanity, too.
Here’s what I know, according to sources: The Sabres were looking for a president of hockey operations-type last season. They never hired one, and seemingly cooled to the idea. If Botterill comes back, I can’t see a scenario in which he doesn’t have someone above him to help facilitate this turnaround, or at least sign off on his plans. Perhaps even someone to be the public face and voice of ownership/management, like Ted Black was back in the day.
(Botterill, however, didn’t exactly seem down with the idea of having a new boss between himself and the Pegulas, saying to WGR: “I feel comfortable with the management group we have, and we understand that we have to continue to be better.”)
If they don’t retain Botterill, there are two other directions in which I’d support the Sabres going.
Scenario No. 2: Krueger becomes coach/general manager, which we haven’t had since Darryl Sutter in Calgary. Look, if anyone could do it, it’s that guy.
Whatever the next remedy is for their decade of ills, the Sabres being this bad absolutely sucks for the NHL — and not just because we’re seriously considering sending SEAL Team 6 in to rescue Eichel from this disaster zone. We’re always talking about this or that franchise “needing” to be good for the betterment of the league. Well, look at the local ratings from Buffalo for, like, the past two decades. The moment the Sabres become a relevant, championship-contending team is the moment every Western New York expat who ever wore a buffalo head on their bodies comes out of the shadows to support the team. It would be like that energy we felt in Washington and St. Louis, only with 10 times the catharsis and fans jumping through burning tables.
But that possibility seems delusional at this point, not just when glancing at the standings, but in the hearts and minds of Sabres fans. Not unless things change.
I asked Tripi what he would say if his protest ended with him having earned an audience with Terry and Kim Pegula.
“The message would be this: Kim, Terry, I want to thank you for all you have done for this town, this city and this community. Keeping the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres in Buffalo and being a part of the rebirth of our great city is something that we will always be thankful for. But whether it’s you or the management under you, what is happening in this organization is not right by any means and you need to pay attention. The way the fans, the alumni and this franchise have been disrespected and neglected over the span of nine years is sickening,” he said.
“We are a passionate fan base in a hardworking, blue-collar city and we don’t deserve a billionaire owner if he refuses to listen or act. We are not content with the situation that you have created with this organization. And if you’re upset about the reaction that the fans are giving, you shouldn’t be. You should be happy that fans still care about this team. Please, for the sake of the franchise and the people of Buffalo, be better.”
— b roe (@brian_roe) February 2, 2020
Jersey Foul spelling errors can go one of two ways. Sometimes it’s the pro or printing shop that made the error. Sometimes it’s user error when they’re filling out the form. In any case, please remember this useful rhyme: “I before E especially when it’s ‘Nieds.'”
Three things about Alex Ovechkin (and the fantabulous emancipation of The Great One’s record)
1. Thanks to this ridiculous run of 14 goals in seven games, Ovechkin is on pace for 61 goals. Sixty-one! No one in the history of the National Hockey League has scored 60 goals past 32 years old, which is how old Phil Esposito was in 1974-75 when he hit the milestone for the last time. Wayne Gretzky’s last season of 60 or more goals season was at 26. Brett Hull‘s was at 27. Mike Bossy’s was at 29. Mario Lemieux‘s was at 30. Ovechkin, 34, is already the greatest goal scorer of his generation, and now he’s poised to become the best goal scorer among those of an advanced hockey age.
2. All eyes are on Ovechkin breaking Gretzky’s career mark of 894 goals. (As Gordie Howe, who also scored 174 goals in the WHA, was keen of saying when Gretzky was chasing his career total: “Don’t confuse people. Eight hundred one is an NHL record. The career [record], he has a little way to go.”) But there are other records Ovechkin might topple along the way. His hat trick against the Los Angeles Kings was his 143rd multigoal game, tying him for fifth most. Gretzky leads with 189 of them. Ovechkin’s 40th goal marked the 11th season he hit that mark, one behind Gretzky’s NHL record. The chase for the side records is going to be fun.
3. Since we’re talking stats here, I love this quote from Capitals teammate John Carlson at the NHL All-Star Game: “We’re used to hearing the crazy stats about him all the time. And it becomes normal, even though it’s far from it. I think you take it for granted a little bit, what kind of career he’s had.” I think many of us have. But in less than 200 goals from now, no one will ever again.
Listen to ESPN On Ice
If you wanted to know why Sean Couturier didn’t like Gritty but is now happy the mascot was acquitted, then this is the podcast for you. Plus more Ovechkin talk and a little trade deadline primer from Emily Kaplan and me. Listen here, and make sure to rate and review so others can find the podcast!
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Jack Campbell
What a roller-coaster NHL career for this guy. Drafted 11th overall by Dallas, where he played one game and was considered a bust. Resurrected as a backup goalie in Los Angeles, where he posted a .928 save percentage and earned a two-year contract extension he signed last September. Now he goes from a straight-up rebuild to a potential Stanley Cup contender with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Oh, and a chance to make good by general manager Kyle Dubas after flopping in that trade when the two were in the OHL.
Loser: Kyle Dubas
Well, loser for now. Frederik Andersen‘s neck injury pulled the scab off the biggest vulnerability the Leafs have, which was the lack of any viable backup goaltender who can successfully paper over their defensive deficiencies. Michael Hutchinson was the backup not because he’s any good — he was 64th in goals saved above average entering a loss to the Rangers where he gave up four goals — but because he was cheap at $700,000 and the Leafs have been managed within a hair of the salary-cap ceiling. Again, the Campbell deal could be an example of “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and work out rather well. But for all the criticisms sprayed at Dubas from his Toronto-based critics, this one stuck. They lost four points due to poor goaltending in the past two games.
Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning have two regulation losses since Dec. 23, going 16-2-1. They’ve outscored their opponents 73-37 during that stretch. They’re now have the fourth-best points percentage in the NHL (.670) and are within striking distance of the top seed in the Eastern Conference. So no, Jon Cooper does not appear to be on the “hot seat.”
Loser: Calgary Flames
The Flames are clinging to a wild-card spot after going 2-4-1 in their past seven games, including consecutive home losses to Edmonton — an 8-3 embarrassment — and the San Jose Sharks. Mark Giordano is injured. It was a bad, bad week.
Winner: Winnipeg Jets
The resolution of the Dustin Byfuglien ordeal means the bubble team is going to have $7.6 million to play with at the trade deadline, and that means help will be on the way for the blue-line problems that his absence helped create.
Loser: Everyone who slept on Ilya Kovalchuk
He has 10 points in 13 games for Montreal, plus a shootout winner against the Devils. He has been so good, there’s speculation that the Canadiens will hang on to him. Your team couldn’t have used that?
Winner: Eric Schwab
Here’s a story that happened two days after Christmas, but was brought to light this week. An athletic trainer at Henry Ford Health System, Schwab saved the life of Conor Place, a 15-year-old sophomore at University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Place went into cardiac arrest during a hockey practice at Hazel Park Ice Arena. Schwab performed two rounds of CPR before someone was able to bring a defibrillator that he used to revive Place. “Those things don’t happen as a coincidence,” Conor said of Schwab being at practice that day. “It was a test of faith, really.”
Loser: Emerson Clark
— Justin A. Cohn (@SportsiCohn) February 1, 2020
Clark, the Jacksonville Icemen captain (!), was suspended 16 games by the ECHL for his actions in a brawl on Jan. 31. He was banned for physical abuse of an official and being a repeat offender, at one point pulling an on-ice official’s jersey over his head in an attempt to break free to fight. Fort Wayne’s Chase Stewart and Kyle Haas were both suspended six games for “fighting off the playing surface,” aka throwing punches from the bench. Old-time hockey!
Can Great Britain’s men’s national team make the 2022 Olympic cut?
Willie O’Ree on Akim Aliu‘s brave callout of ex-Flames coach Bill Peters: “He felt within his heart, within his mind this is what he should have done and he went out and did it. I speak of racism, prejudice and bigotry and ignorance. It happens all the time. Not only in sports, but general life. I’ve had racial remarks and racial slurs directed at me in the gas station or in a drugstore or in a mall. It’s just because the color of your skin.”
The U.S. and Canada women met in Vancouver, and players couldn’t help but think back to the 2010 Olympics. Team USA’s Monique Lamoureux-Morando, on losing the gold medal game: “Not the best of memories. It was our first Olympic experience and Vancouver holds a special place in our hearts, especially for my sister and I in accomplishing our dream of becoming Olympians. It’s always special to be back here. We always know that Canada puts on a good crowd, and a good game. We’re excited for the game, and the atmosphere it’ll bring.”
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Dimitri Filipovic dives into the Hart Trophy race, with detailed cases for and against nine (!) top candidates.