Buffalo, New York. The Queen City. The City of Good Neighbours. Home to the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Bisons, Buffalo Bandits, and of course, the Buffalo Sabres. For years the blue and yellow have been the perennial kid-brother and second-fiddle to the larger market NHL franchises with the likes of the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. However, few would argue that the passion of Western New Yorkers runs high for their Sabres.
For a team (and city) who’s never won a major championship, the city of Buffalo is home to passionate football and hockey fans. The dilemma, most recently, appears in the on-ice product that’s been mired in mediocrity/failure for nearly ten seasons. The Sabres have missed out on the playoffs for the last eight consecutive seasons. They last qualified for the dance during the 2010-11 campaign, and were “one and done”, and ultimately eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round in seven games. Change was coming.
2014 NHL Entry Draft
Fast-forward to the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The Buffalo Sabres, coming off a 21, yes 21 win season were scheduled to select second overall. All eyes, for better or worse, were fixed on general manager, Tim Murray. But what if the Sabres didn’t pick second? What if they had actually won the all-important Draft Lottery? How would this literal “luck of the draw” affect the Sabres franchise?
Entering the 2014 Draft Lottery, the Sabres owned the best odds (25%) at selecting first. Although this seems anything but a mathematical certainty, this was the best the Sabres (and their fans) could hope for, given the draft lottery rules and regulations at the time. This coming off the heels of a 51-point season, and a (dead) last-place finish in the standings. But despite their miserable campaign, the Sabres had high hopes that moving forward, their beloved franchise would be in good hands.
When NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly opened up the envelope on national television indicating who won the first pick, it was none other than the Florida Panthers. Remarkably, the Panthers owned 18.8% odds and finished 15 points higher than the Sabres in the standings, and essentially won the sweepstakes and the right to draft highly touted defenceman, Aaron Ekblad. Playing his junior hockey for the Barrie Colts, Ekblad lined up at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, just a mammoth of a man on skates. As for the Sabres? They drafted forward Sam Reinhart. A serviceable player whose contributions as a top-six forward are still very much in question to this very day.
2015 NHL Entry Draft
It’s deja-vu all over again in the city of Buffalo. Prior to the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery, the Buffalo Sabres, had yet, once again, for the second consecutive season, owned the greatest odds at picking first at 20%. This time, however, the stakes were much higher. The prize? None other than Connor McDavid. Hailed as “The Next One”, and Sidney’s Crosby’s successor as the league’s most explosive talent, Tim Murray and the Sabres front office were chomping at the bit this time around.
After a season mired in disappointment, resulting in a last-place finish, the Sabres knew that if the stars aligned their prospects as a franchise would flourish because of number 97. But yet again, like so many times before, the city of Buffalo, and its passionate fans were soon to be disappointed. This time it was the Edmonton Oilers, yes the Oilers who had won the draft lottery with an 11.5% chance of taking home the first overall pick. Now keep in mind, that they had previously selected first in three consecutive years (2010-2012). The franchise was set to get their hands on yet another pick, but this time, it was for a player who would take the NHL, and the game of hockey by storm.
Remember those Sabres? Well, they ended up with centerman Jack Eichel, the 2015 recipient of the Hobey Baker award out of Boston University. In defense of the Sabres, “ending up” with Eichel is not a bad consolation, by any means. However, in McDavid, who is arguably the best player in the NHL, and will be for years to come, the Sabres will always look back on these drafts and wonder what might, or could have been. Since selecting second in both 2014 and 2015, playoff hockey has still not returned to the wonderful city of Buffalo. One can only speculate as to how this might have turned out if the “lottery balls” bounced Buffalo’s way. You have to think that this Sabres team would have an entirely different look to it had the 2014 and 2015 NHL Drafts gone differently. Oh, what could have been…
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