The Buffalo Sabres were never expected to do much this season and while they had a great stretch from mid-November to mid-December, they did enter the All-Star break in last place after losing 11 straight.
Since before the season even began they’ve had to live with accusations that they’re tanking in order to land Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Both are considered to be players you could potentially build a franchise around. Still, the idea that they would intentionally try to slip into last place is insulting to Sabres head coach Ted Nolan.
“I’ve been around with the game for a long time,” Nolan told ESPN.com. “I’ve never been associated with anyone who said, ‘Let’s lose this game.’ Hey, winning is hard. There’s no sense in planning not to.”
The accusations have their root less in what Nolan or his players have done though and more with how the team was assembled in the first place. The Sabres dealt key veterans like Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller last season, leaving the squad underwhelming on paper. If trading away top veterans in exchange for picks and/or prospects is what it takes to be accused of tanking though, then Sabres president Ted Black thinks it’s become shorthand for rebuilding.
“You diminish yourself significantly in the present,” Black said of trading veterans. “But the hope is that it’s the future. We’ve gone through a dismantling. Are we trying to tank? No. But the performance is going to slip when you trade All-Stars for picks. It’s a consequence of a rebuild that’s going to require patience and time.”
Above all, captain Brian Gionta doesn’t want his teammates to get the idea that losing is acceptable under any circumstances.
“You don’t want guys coming in after a loss and feeling like we made strides,” Gionta said. “This game is all about winning. Part of the turnaround is changing that culture, the feel in the room, what’s acceptable and what’s not.”