So, Sabres fans. How is the Tank working for you now?
Seven years after losing on purpose for a shot at the top pick in the NHL draft, enabled by many of their own fans and media, the Sabres have reached a new bottom. Yes, with this franchise, things can always get worse.
Jack Eichel, the reward for tanking, is at odds with the team over the handling of his neck injury and most likely on his way out of town. That assumes the Sabres can find the right deal, but it’s hard to imagine Captain Jack being in a Buffalo uniform next year in this poisoned atmosphere.
On Tuesday, Eichel spoke of a “disconnect” with management over how to treat a herniated disc that sidelined him in March. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Eichel wants to undergo an experimental procedure that would replace the damaged disc with an artificial one.
The next day, general manager Kevyn Adams defended the team, saying that Eichel’s proposed surgery had never been performed on an NHL player and that the Sabres’ conservative course of action — 12 weeks of rest and rehabilitation — was the proper way to treat the injury.
This is a complicated issue. Injuries are always a touchy subject, especially with star players. For a longtime NBA watcher like myself, the Eichel situation brings back memories of Bill Walton’s ugly falling-out with the Portland Trail Blazers over their handling of his foot injuries in the late 1970s.
But from a larger perspective, the issue isn’t really Eichel’s health, but the chronic malaise that is the Buffalo Sabres under the stewardship of Terry and Kim Pegula.
I know the neck injury is a big deal. But it strikes me as a convenient way for Eichel to lobby for a trade. He’s tired of losing, tired of being part of the worst franchise in professional sports. Fair or not, the losing sticks to him. I've been saying for three years that his agent would eventually want to get him free.
A disconnect? I saw a direct connection to three springs ago, when Ryan O’Reilly made his infamous comments on Sabres locker-cleanout day. O’Reilly admitted that he had “lost the love of the game” at times, and said the Sabres were “stuck in this mindset of being OK with losing.”
Eichel did everything but announce that he’d lost his love for the game on Tuesday. Strip away the medical stuff and I hear the same underlying message that O’Reilly sent in April of 2018: Get me out of this forsaken losing place.
Connect the dots. It leads all the way back to the Tank, to the Pegulas running out Pat LaFontaine and firing Ted Nolan and buying into the flimsy notion that stripping down the roster and losing for a top pick was a winning blueprint.
But there are consequences to tanking, and they persist to this day. You create a toxic, losing environment, one in which some players become comfortable and others want no part of the organization. There’s a settling mentality for some veterans. Taylor Hall was only the most recent example.
O’Reilly felt it and wanted to get out of Buffalo before the losing began to define him. He won the Stanley Cup and the Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP the following season, which was a withering indictment of the culture he left behind.
The enablers demonized O’Reilly, contending that he had been the problem with the Sabres — in the same way they demonized LaFontaine and Chris Drury. You can already hear the murmurs about Eichel, who didn’t do himself any favors with his radical approach to the injury.
Tanking was a weak, short-sighted strategy all along. Sure, it can work in basketball, where one player can change a franchise. The Astros made it work in baseball. But in hockey, where it takes an elusive combination of talent, toughness and depth to win big, it’s a risky proposition.
What it gets you is a bunch of high draft picks and the dubious privilege of overpaying them. Eichel is a terrific talent, but he wasn’t worth $80 million over 10 years. He and Sam Reinhart are overpaid, overindulged high picks who went through the motions of leadership and never won a damn thing.
They’ll soon have to empty the vault for defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who hasn’t come close to justifying his reputation as a “generational” player who was the unquestioned No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Now, assuming they keep it, they’ll get another high pick who’ll eventually command big money.
There’s mounting sentiment to blow the whole thing up, to trade Eichel, Reinhart and, mercifully, Rasmus Ristolainen, and go forward with a promising collection of young players, draft picks and future trade acquisitions.
Adams, the novice GM, seemed to be leaning that way in his Wednesday presser when he praised the Sabres “young core” and expressed a desire for players who want to be in Buffalo and are willing to play for something bigger than themselves.
Yes, make it about the kids now. It’s a reasonable enough approach. Of course, it would be a convenient way for the Pegulas to save money on salaries at a time of financial belt-tightening. Last year, remember, they promised an “effective, efficient and economic” new era.
They’ve missed the playoffs for a NHL record-tying 10th straight season, a staggering run of incompetence. This year, they finished last overall in the league for the fourth time in the last eight years. At one point, there were a league-high 10 players on the roster who were drafted in the top 10 overall.
So why not strip it down and start over? How much worse can it get? Sabres fans have an infinite capacity for belief, though it has been badly strained over the last decade. Eight years ago, Darcy Regier told fans there would be suffering along the way. When does the suffering end?
They brought a lot of the suffering on themselves. Buffalo is a good hockey town and its people deserve better. As for the fans who cheered losses and booed victories during the Tank, well, they got exactly what they deserved.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.