It’s time for another installment of the Armchair GM. This time, I’ll be looking at the four teams who completed probably the most successful tanks in history, and where they need to go from here. I’m starting with the worst of the regular season, so for part one, we’ll be looking at the Buffalo Sabres.
Where They Are Now:
GM Tim Murray captained probably one of the most blatant and insidious tanks we’ve seen in modern hockey history. The Sabres were never going to be a contending team, but their goal became more obvious when Murray traded Jhonas Enroth to the Dallas Stars for a flailing Lindback and a 2016 3rd round pick…and then traded their OTHER starting goalie, Michal Neuvirth, to the Islanders for their disappointing (and quickly injured) backup, Chad Johnson.
The Sabres haven’t been a possession team for some time, as can be seen on this chart.
X axis is their Corsi For % (a measure of Shots on Goal, Missed Shots, and Blocked Shots)
Y axis is their Goals For % (Goals For/Total Goals Scored)
Size is their Offensive Zone Start %
Color is their PDO (Shooting % + Save %, a measure of “puck luck”), with blue being more lucky and red being less lucky
All numbers are 5v5 and Score Adjusted.
Their best possession in the last three seasons was only about 45%, and they were still only at 48% Goals For %. However there is a clear downward trend culminating in this season where they put up a dismal 36% CF% and 38% GF%. I’m still upset that 4.6% of the goals they scored this year were against the Stars.
Here are their current Forward and Defense skaters who logged over 250 5v5 minutes for Buffalo this season. A red line under the player indicates they are no longer with the club.
X Axis is Offensive Zone Start % Relative (relative to the rest of the team, more negative = more defensive zone time)
Y Axis is Goals For %
Color is Corsi For % Relative (relative to the rest of the team – remember, the team’s average is 36% this season). Blue is higher, red is lower.
Size is Time on Ice
As you can see, they currently lack any sort of offensive weapons – the Sabres only have one forward over 50% GF% (Johan Larsson) and he plays sheltered offensive zone minutes. Similarly, their defense is fairly unreliable, with Zach Bogosian picking up Tyler Myers’s minutes (if not his zone time) after they were swapped in a blockbuster trade with Winnipeg. Josh Gorges is also spent much of his time this year on IR, though he is slated to return next season.
Buffalo has a strong, committed fanbase, despite these last few years of mediocrity. Unlike several other teams whose fans were so disgusted by watching loss after loss they started tuning out, Buffalo’s fans bought wholeheartedly into the the tank, even cheering when they failed to win an OT game against the Arizona Coyotes.
Why is this important? Well, because the team is actually profitable. Per Forbes, their 2014 operating income was $4.4m – not a ton when compared to Canadian juggernauts like the Maple Leafs ($70.6m) or Canadiens ($59.8m), but it’s miles better than most teams at the bottom of the table (even the Stars only posted a $3.5m figure), and they actually grew 15% in value year over year. Monetary success with a team that has a losing record means that the owner is likely to invest more since the potential upside of a winning team’s revenues would be huge.
The Sabres also have about $9m of cap space this year, so should be in a good spot to make any moves they need to make next year, either with their several RFA players, or with a splashy UFA signing.
The other big trick up Buffalo’s sleeve was part of their big gamble with trading Myers to Winnipeg: They now have Evander Kane. Kane hasn’t yet played in a Sabres’ sweater due to a season-ending shoulder surgery, but with Winnipeg (and Atlanta) he has never put up less than 1.7 Points per 60 in all situations. He also has a possession game far and above any of his new teammates, posting a 52.8% this season (5v5). Buffalo’s highest skater this year? Larsson at 42.1%.
Despite having a 20% chance to land the #1 pick in the lottery, the fates cackled loudly, and sent that pick to the Edmonton Oilers. The Sabres will be picking second, and will very likely take American Jack Eichel, a center.
This is entirely the right choice for a team with an ailing offense and a (current) lack of star power. Assuming Eichel makes it through training camp (and with his shot, his size, and his speed there is no reason he won’t) I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the top line with Kane on his wing.
Commitment to Change:
Murray sold the fans on tanking, but Coach Ted Nolan did manage to string together a few wins here and there, and actually got the best performance out of Anders Lindback that he’s had in years. So now that the Sabres have done what Murray asked of them, what does he do?
He fires Nolan. For losing. When…that was kind of the point. You have to believe the Sabres are going to make a bid for a well known “winning” coach, especially with Babcock likely leaving the Red Wings, and McLellan “mutually parting ways” with the Sharks.
Ethics aside, there isn’t much management can really do right now to “fix” Buffalo, other than prepare for the offseason and identify their needs on the UFA market. They do have some good prospects in the system (Sam Reinhart was their 2nd overall pick last year and made a splash in World Juniors this year with 11 points), but their talent problems run deep, especially in the defensive side of the game, and again, they don’t have a clear starting goaltender.
Potential Stumbling Blocks:
As Dallas fans know, without a goalie duo that can steal wins for you, getting to the playoffs can be pretty difficult. The Sabres current options are Anders Lindback (career NHL Sv% of 0.905) and Chad Johnson (NHL Sv% of 0.914). Lindback has only started 88 games over his 5 years in the NHL – Johnson only 48. This should worry everyone at the organization, especially since good goaltending is both hard to come by and expensive.
Antti Niemi is going UFA next year and could be a good pickup for them, and it looks like Jimmy Howard (and his big contract) might be up for grabs as the Red Wings have opted to go with young Petr Mrazek in net for their first two playoff games. And of course, the Sabres former starter, Jhonas Enroth, will be on the market as well, and seems to still have the support of the fans in Buffalo. If the Sabres don’t make an upgrade in net this summer, their rebuild will have a hard time taking hold.
The other major concern is more of an intangible; by not getting the number one pick for all his tanking efforts, Murray may have shot himself in the foot. You see, Murray has been effusive in his praise of McDavid, and after it became obvious that the Sabres were picking second, he probably gave his PR person a heart attack with his remarks about the lottery.
Eichel, who clearly figured that he’d land in Buffalo, has been complimentary of the club, but recently there have been rumors that he will return to college instead of join the NHL next year. And after seeing Murray’s “2nd isn’t good enough” reaction, who could blame him? Afterall, no one wants to start a new job already labelled as a disappointment.
Prediction for Next Season:
Assuming the Sabres do get average goaltending and Eichel does hop on board, they will move up in the standings, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hovering around 22. No matter which coach they hire, they’ll be trying to turn around a group of guys who have clearly not been playing the possession-based hockey you need to have these days, and re-teaching those basic skills takes time. Don’t expect the playoffs next season, but the outlook is good for the next 2-3 years.