There might not be a more polarizing NHL franchise outside of the Buffalo Sabres in any sport. In the last ten seasons, the Sabres have picked 14 players. Since the infamous pick of former franchise player Jack Eichel in 2015, the Sabres have picked eight times in the first round. Some of these players include Owen Power, Jack Quinn, Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt, and Rasmus Asplund. With so many opportunities to draft elite talent. The kind of talent that has the potential to change a franchise for years to come. Nevertheless, the Sabres find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in for the last 11 seasons in a row, failing to even hit the 40 win mark once in that same time frame.
Oh Captain, My Captain
In the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the Sabres selected second overall prospect, Jack Eichel. He was immediately crowned as the franchise player of the future. The Massachusetts native and Boston University standout had arrived to save the day. Eichel battled his way to 24 goals and 56 points in his rookie season. Eichel would be named captain for the young Sabres in 2018 at just 22 years old. Eichel would only play 375 games out of a possible 492 in his six seasons with the Sabres. Eichel sustained a devastating neck injury on March 7th, 2021, against the New York Islanders. After receiving the medical diagnosis that he had a herniated disc in his neck, Eichel sought out a second opinion. His private surgeon believed the best treatment for his injury would be artificial disk replacement surgery, a procedure never before performed on an NHL player. The Sabres refused this experimental treatment and insisted Eichel get a more common disk fusion surgery for his injury. However, Eichel believed it was his right to receive the best treatment for his career. After months of back and forth between the disgruntled player and Sabres ownership, lots of trade rumours, and agent angry tweets, Eichel would be traded on November 4th, 2021, to the Las Vegas Golden Knights. The Sabres would ultimately end up with Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, a top 10 protected first-round pick in 2022, a second-round and third-round pick in 2023. Not the haul many wanted but based on the unknown outcome of his surgery, better than they should have expected.
So Many Prospects, So Little Success
The Sabres have drafted 28 players in the last four NHL Entry Level Drafts. A dismal four have played at least one game in the NHL. Only two of those four players have broken in at the NHL level. Those two players are Cozens and Dahlin. In the name of full disclosure, out of those 28 draft picks, 11 were taken in the 2021 NHL Draft. Their number one overall pick, Defenseman Owen Power, has 23 points in just 18 games with the University of Michigan. Their first overall pick in 2020, winger Jack Quinn, is currently playing in the AHL for the Rochester Americans and has 24 points in 17 games. If we go back to where this article started since the draft of Eichel, the Sabres have selected 49 players. That group has a total of FOUR players to dress for the Sabres lineup with any consistency. Out of those 49 players, only 15 have even seen a game in the NHL. The Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Sabres, have only made the playoffs twice, losing both times in the quarter-final round in the last seven seasons. There seems to be a systemic deficiency in identifying talent, developing prospects, and turning them into NHL-ready players.
It seems like every fan base’s go-to complaint is ownership woes. However, in this case, they might have a point. The Pegulas bought the Sabres in 2011 and have managed themselves into the NHL’s longest playoff drought streak. Some blame bad GM hirings. Between Tim Murray’s asset mismanagement by trading away picks trying to shortcut the rebuild and Jason Botterill trading away Ryan O’Reilly. The veteran center just finished second in team scoring to Eichel, by only three points. This team can not seem to get out of its own way. Every time a little momentum is building, the GM, whether directed by the Pegulas or on his own, finds a way to stop all forward progress.
No, that isn’t a code for a shortcut to information on your iPhone. Believe it or not, that was the Sabre’s record to start the 2021-22 season. Hope sprung eternal, and fans thought that the Eichel trade would not come back to bite them. Since then, the Sabres have gone 5-16-5 for a staggeringly low 15 total points out of a possible 52 points. Somehow they are not the worst team in the NHL by standings. They currently sit in 28th place, better than the Kraken, Senators, Canadiens, and of course, the Coyotes. The Sabres are currently on a four-game losing streak, which thankfully was interrupted by the COVID shutdown and the Christmas break.
Help Is On The Way Dear…
No, Mrs. Doubtfire will not save this choke job, but Sabre fans do not fear. Maybe the silver lining this season is that the injury bug hit the Sabres early and hard. Veteran netminder Craig Anderson was 4-2 with an excellent 2.50 GAA, and a .921 save percentage at the time of his injury. Sabres also have Mittelstadt, Robert Hagg, and goaltender Dustin Tokarski. One goalie on IR is tough to overcome, but two is even more challenging. No, this season’s failures are not all on ownership or the management. In this case, they have not had a fully healthy lineup to gain any chemistry and develop any momentum.
The Sabres still have high-level talent on the active NHL roster and very much so in the pipeline. With Power, Quinn, Cozens, Dahlin, Mittlestadt, and Asplund to name a few. They hold a massive three first-round picks in the upcoming 2022 NHL Entry Level Draft. All eyes will be on this draft as the highly targeted Shane Wright is expected to go number one overall. Of course, the NHL uses the dreaded draft lottery system so even if the Sabres find their way to last place, there is no guarantee they’ll land Wright. However, with three picks in the first 32 even the Sabres couldn’t mess that up, Wright?
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