We’re just one sleep away, as they say, from the first game of the
2015-16 regular season new era of Sabres hockey.
How will the season shake out? Are the playoffs a possibility? I’m not sure it makes any sense to ask.
It will be a curious season, one not so much defined by the number of wins, but the incremental growth of the team and its young stars, headlined by Jack Eichel. Of course – and Jack will tell you this – we should see plenty of headlines from Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, and Tyler Ennis as well. Sam Reinhart and Zemgus Girgensons could generate some surprising production against lesser NHL talent on the third line. The offense is young, and remarkably talented.
The defense is an interesting mix of youth and veteran stop gaps. The continuing emergence of Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk will be a welcome sight as the season rolls along.
In goal, Robin Lehner will be proving to the NHL that he is the starting goaltender that Tim Murray is wagering on.
There’s a lot of youth and a lot to prove here in Buffalo.
So, I’m not going to try to sell you on wins. Those W’s will happen, but let’s allow this group time to learn to play together under Coach Dan and against the more inveterate and finely tuned squads of the National Hockey League.
I was going to pour over my posts from last year, and remind you all just how awful it was back then, and how much better it will be – or already is – in Buffalo this year. But who the hell wants to be dragged through any of that anymore? Let’s be adults, and just shoulder the burden of the past.
Let me tell you about my boy, instead. After all, he’s one of the generation that is inheriting this generational team.
This morning, my son woke up eager to vote for the Sabres’ goal song. His first words to me were “IT’S HOCKEY EVE!” He’s got the front page of The Buffalo News’ NHL preview tacked up on his wall, and will tell anyone listening that Evander Kane is going to be that Ovechkin we’ve always wanted (or “Ovech-chicken” as he prefers to say, since that’s how he mispronounced it on his first try a couple years ago, and the joke just stuck, as fun things tend to do). He’ll also mention O’Reilly and Reinhart at times, but he always goes back to Kane. Maybe because, pre-Eichel, that’s where the fun started for him. Mostly because he just wants to see more goals this year. Those are also fun, or so that’s what I think I remember. It’s been a while.
I’ve been showing him clips and highlights of Eichel since the draft. I’ve done my due diligence as a hockey fan parent to explain what a generational talent is, how rare they are, and how lucky he is to grow up watching one. Of course, by the time I get through with the lecture, he’s tuned out. He doesn’t want things explained to him. He just wants the season to get started, already.
He just wants to say things like this:
And what of that Eichel kid? Like my boy, there are so many fans out there who have no idea what it is like to watch a hockey team with this kind of talent. I’d like to describe it for you. After all, I’ve lived through and enjoyed the thrills of the Perreault and Hasek eras. But again, I won’t bore any of you with wordy memories of thrills long gone.
If you insist on a season prediction, we’ll go back to The Boy, who, even full of his own youthful exuberance, tells me that “The Sabres will win half and lose half.” He says it with a shrug, as if becoming instant winners doesn’t really matter. He gets it. He’s going to have a lot more to cheer for this year, be it through Eichel, or any of the other “Ovech-chickens” that will keep that goal song playing all season long. He’s going to have a lot more fun. And as his father reassures him, there are some great years coming our way.
The wins will come, but take The Boy’s advice, and be patient. Enjoy the ride.
As for me, I’m more than satisfied with my generational part in all of this. I’m ready to sit back in my E-Z chair, looking forward to watching this team and my boy grow up together into a couple of champs. Who on this sporting earth could ask for anything more than that?
Hockey eve. This house is ready.
It’s been a long journey. It’s not one that any fans had asked for, and it was one of heavy burden and endurance. But it’s over. The tank is parked in the garage.
Everything changes now.
Let’s take a look at what “everything” means.
The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes are beginning a 5 game playoff series, of sorts. The winner gets a guaranteed shot at McEichel. The loser gets to sweat through the lottery and hope no other team usurps their place.
The good news for Sabres fans is that they’ve got a one game head start in the series. They should, as has been projected all season, complete Tim Murray’s project and finish out at the bottom.
Cheers to Micah Black McCurdy for supplying these calming sets of data throughout the season. Of course, no mathematical model, even those as consistent as his, is a guarantee. It’s a projection, and the Sabres and Yotes are now entering an extremely small 5 game sample size. My money remains with the math, but I have to recognize both scenarios, as they are now both entirely plausible.
So what happens if the Sabres finish 29th?
I imagine a lot of you will be pretty upset. There will be plenty of finger wagging, but there is no where to truly rest blame in this situation. The GM did his job in assembling the worst team model in the history of advanced statistical data. The coach could not find a way to upset that model. The players did some hockey things, and most of those things were horrendous, as planned. The fans cheered for the wrong team, but it’s folly to believe that some sort of magical hockey witchcraft descended on the franchise as a result.
Still, there will be plenty of upset and disappointment to go around. It will take time to get over missing out on a generational talent. That’s human nature; it takes time to process a loss. But fans will come around, and learn to embrace whomever the Sabres pick at 3rd, and learn to get excited again about the future of this prospect-loaded franchise.
Fans should take comfort in the fact that Tim Murray hasn’t put all his eggs into one basket. Just as any great mathematical model cannot guarantee a result, any team perfectly engineered to finish last cannot be guaranteed a thing. There are always backup plans in sports. Rest assured that if the Sabres do miss out on McEichel that there is a plan B, a plan C, and a plan D, etc.
At the end of this dreary season, the Sabres brass and fans may not get the trophy talent they wanted, but there are plans there for GMTM to utilize his mountain of assets within any given scenario.
Try to remember, that for the duration of this “5 game playoff,” that:
- We still have the upper hand
- There is always a Plan B
I’ve used this space this season to try and help ease the burden of a horrific season. I’ve tried to get fans out from their divisive sides, to get them to look at things in more reasonable, or more analytical ways. I’ve never told anyone strictly how to cheer, or penned rules on how to think or feel, but I’ve tried to help you all find a safer space in Sabres rhetoric and at the FNC, two places that have become burning asylums.
Now, with 10 games left, it’s time to throw all rhetoric and advice out the window. Don’t forget to check the math along the way, but with just 10 games to go and with two of those contests against the one team able to steal 30th away, anything is really possible.
I’m not going to even try to tell you how to feel.
There is nothing healthy about this procedure for any of us. We’ve been watching the worst hockey team assembled in the modern statistical era, hoping for losses and trying to find ways to root for our players at the same time. It’s been wretched. Exhausting.
We’ve already been locked in that burning asylum for a year, and we’re already exhausted, yet still there is more to endure. 10 games left, and we’re still entering uncharted territories of suffering. These games will yield the most ridiculously important results we’ve seen in years – and for all the most upside down and bizarre reasons.
All I have left to give anyone is to ask you not to riot. Don’t fight each other in hot takes tank battles anymore. No one’s side matters anymore. A couple coaches, a goalie or two, and some players are going to do some hockey things that cannot be controlled by any of you, and some of the moments heading your way may be too heady to bear.
Shout, cringe, yell, scream, pump your fists. It doesn’t matter why you do it anymore.
10 games, and anything can happen in the chaos. Just make sure you’re not a part of that.
Good luck to you all.
Hey there, Sabres.
Hi, Sabres fans.
You’ve endured a hell of a time the past two seasons on the ice. The fanbase has been there with you, suffering the ups and downs of the tumultuous rebuild. You’ve had to emerge out of that locker room every game, and put up an intense physical effort for a team that you knew was designed to implode. The fans knew that too, but they’ve still filled the stands.
Sticktaps all around.
You all deserve an award for sticking it out during all of this. For some of you Sabres players, that award may be in the form of a trade to a contending team. Good luck if that becomes the case – but don’t forget us if you become an UFA – Buffalo is going to be a ridiculously fun team to play on in the very near future.
Most fans reading this would assume I mean the fan award should be McEichel. I’d love the opportunity to cheer for a superstar, but pegging the award part of all of this on just one name is a bit myopic. The real reward for fans will be the return to good – even great – hockey. That will be a team thing, and it will happen with McEichel or without.
We’re nearing the end of the hard part, everyone, and isn’t it a wonderful feeling? Our team is beginning to come into focus, our dreams just beginning to be realized. Those who will help Buffalo contend, players like Ristolainen, Girgensons, and Kane, are signed up and ready to go. Sam Reinhart is on his way. Goodness, I hope it was as exciting for you to read those two sentences as it was for me to type them.
The rest of the team has yet to take shape, but the excitement is here, now, for what this team will be next season.
I do not know how big of a turnaround we’ll see in 2015-16, but the goal will be making the playoffs, or at least coming as close as possible.
That’s a pretty modest goal for most teams. In Buffalo, it’s a massive change of perspective. The rebuild, for most intents and purposes, will be dead. The long ago foretold suffering will be wiped away from our consciousness and experience, one more game, one more win at a time.
For those players who leave us tomorrow, and for those who stay, thanks for the being a part of this, and take comfort in the fact that your days playing as assets or commodities are coming to a close.
For the fans who have argued and cheered and who have argued about what to cheer for, thanks for showing your honesty and for showing up to these games. Your days spent entrenched on divisive sides of toxic arguments are coming to a close.
So once more: sticktaps all around.
Now, let’s go and get something shiny to put inside this place.