NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
This is not where the Buffalo Sabres were supposed to be at this point.
Not at this point of the season, and certainly not at this point of their rebuild that started seven years ago.
The Sabres enter Thursday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in 13th place in the Eastern Conference and 12 points out of a playoff spot. They are on track to miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season (a nearly unprecedented run in NHL history) and there seems to be little short-or long-term hope for significant improvement.
They have lost four out of their past five games, and could be on the verge of losing even diehards like caller Duane.
How bleak has it been over the past decade? Since the start of the 2011-12 season they have not finished higher than 19th in the league standings, and have averaged a 25th place finish over an eight-year stretch. During that time they have never finished in the top-half of the league in goals scored or goals against, and very rarely crack the top-20. They are on their sixth different head coach during that run and their third general manager. The names and faces change from the locker room, to the bench, to the front office, but results on the ice remain almost exactly the same.
It is almost as if the Sabres are in need of a new rebuild from their most recent rebuild.
It also might be a necessity.
They have almost no long-term commitments (or commitments of any kind beyond this season) outside of their top couple of players (Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner), while they have seven pending unrestricted free agents after this season (Jimmy Vesey, Michael Frolik, Zach Bogosian, Conor Sheary, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Scott Wilson). There’s not really a compelling argument to re-sign any of them right now.
Before you even get in to improving the roster, they are simply going to need to to refill almost half of the roster just to put enough bodies on the bench next season. That’s not an easy short-term overhaul, and you also have to trust that you have the right decision-makers in place to do it.
The problem with hitting the reset button on the franchise (again) with yet another fresh start is that they can’t keep wasting the prime years of Eichel.
Eichel is a legitimate superstar talent. He is one of the league’s best players, a cornerstone player that you can build around, and in a better situation with better talent around him would be in the thick of the MVP discussion this season.
Next year is already going to be his sixth year in the league and his age 24 season. By this point in his career he should be the focal point of a Stanley Cup contender, not a team that needs to overhaul half of its roster and has yet to finish in the top half of the league.
The Sabres have so many holes to fill and so many needs to address in the short-term that it’s going to take nearly flawless roster decisions to make a significant short-term jump in the standings in the next year or two. Nothing in their roster decisions with the current management team suggest that is something that is likely, or even possible.
But they are also not in a position where they can start over from scratch because they run the risk of further alienating an already exhausted fan-base, and perhaps most importantly, the one building block player they still have.
Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Kathryn Tappen hosts studio coverage on Thursday with Anson Carter and Colby Armstrong.