On Wednesday afternoon I opened my mailbox to find a familiar sight, one that I've come to expect every spring for the last six years. But never has it left me more incredulous.
"An invoice for Sabres playoff tickets? What kind of sick joke is this?"
My favorite part was this excerpt from the letter that accompanied the invoice: “With the NHL Playoffs just over a month away, we need to be prepared so that tickets are available when the Sabres clinch a Playoff spot.”
Yeah, they wrote “when”. Not if, “when”. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
At the time the letter was written, the Sabres were seven points out of a playoff spot with a million teams to leapfrog. Certainly this meant that the author the letter was either insanely optimistic or frighteningly delusional, or perhaps under the influence of various substances. (There remains an outside chance that I just didn’t pick up on the sarcasm.)
After all, common wisdom holds that the Sabres are destined for a lottery pick and a complete rebuild because they’ve been nine kinds of awful this season. They can’t score, can’t defend, can’t skate, can’t shoot, won’t hit. No passion, no heart, no urgency in their game. Most nights they float up and down the ice at half speed without purpose, almost seeming to be praying for the end of April to arrive quickly. (Maybe by then it will also finally stop snowing.)
And worst of all, lately they’ve been turning on each other; witness the squabble between Ryan Miller and Patrick Kaleta just this week. Their performance has been so egregious that they’ve sent Lindy Ruff, a seemingly untouchable Buffalo icon, to the front of the unemployment line – a feat many never thought possible. Bravo, Sabres. Maybe work on fixing that global warming problem next.
To put it in the proper context, even the Columbus Blue Jackets have a better record than this year’s Sabres. Yes, those Blue Jackets. The squad that has made but one playoff appearance in franchise history and didn’t bother to win a single playoff game during that appearance. The sad-sack organization that was forced to trade away the only good player it ever employed last summer because he was so tired of losing, and now you can’t even name three guys on the roster, largely because the crew that remains is barely old enough to drink. Statistically, they’re better than the Sabres right now.
Funny thing about those Jackets, though…
Let’s step back in time to February 24th. Here are the conference standings on that day. Why that particular date? Because it’s the day after the last game in which Columbus failed to earn a point. Since that time they’ve gone 7-0-4 and climbed out of 15th place, and of this writing they are a mere four points back of 8th.
And this got me thinking… what if the Sabres somehow Columbus their way out of the basement and back into contention?
It’s more possible than you might think because they’re no longer actually in the basement (hi, Panthers). Every time I look at the standings I presume I’ll find the Sabres hovering at the bottom, and while that’s still sort of true, they’re up to 11th right now. More importantly, they’re just four points out of a playoff spot.
There are still teams to leapfrog and most of those teams have a game or two in hand, but the list has grown shorter - and in case you haven’t noticed, every team in the East is remarkably mediocre right now. Look at the records over the last ten games - outside of Pittsburgh, Montreal, Winnipeg (!), and Boston, nobody else is doing anything but treading water.
Is it likely? I don’t think so. The Jackets’ 11-game point streak has been largely rooted in strong defensive play and quite a bit of luck, two things the Sabres have not enjoyed this year. The thought that the Sabres are somehow going to figure out their glaring defensive deficiencies overnight and go on a ten-game winning streak is a little far-fetched.
Then again, a month ago we all thought the notion of the Jackets going on such a streak was far-fetched too. And that’s why this Sabres team needs to get blown up. Right now.
I’m not saying I'm rooting for this team to tank. I can't do it. Nathan MacKinnon seems to be the presumptive #1 draft choice this June and I’m sure he'd help the Sabres quite a bit in the future, but I won’t outwardly root for failure. It goes against everything I am as a fan.
However, I’m very concerned that some sort of improbable Sabres winning streak will prevent the sort of meaningful change that I think most of us agree needs to happen. (This is where the Columbus comparison ends – they’ve already begun their rebuild by trading Rick Nash.) Eternal optimist that I am, I just can’t stand seeing this team finish between 7th and 10th every year - just good enough to avoid the embarrassment of being a doormat, yet not bad enough to “earn” a high draft pick or prompt a rebuild.
We’ve been running in place every season since 2006-07 save for a division title brought to us by the season of Ryan Miller’s life. To his credit, Darcy Regier has been admitting that any trade deadline moves will likely be made with the future in mind more so than the present, which is great news - but the closer the Sabres inch towards a playoff spot, the more likely Regier is to change his mind.
So let the great fire sale commence. Sell everything not bolted to the floor (but not Doug Allen, OK?) and let me root for the kids who remain, like Foligno and Flynn, to overachieve for the rest of the season. Honestly, that’ll probably be more fun than watching the same listless core mail it in game after game.
Rooting for development instead of wins and losses is a different beast, of course. In order to derive true enjoyment from that, I figure I’ll have to take each game one at a time and ignore the context of the rest of the season, but truthfully I’ve been doing that already; it’s why I enjoyed last night's shootout win over the Leafs so much, instead of muttering “but they still need four or five in a row before this matters”. (That, and it's always enjoyable to see the Leafs lose.)
And when the fire sale is done – and I don’t care if this happens immediately, during the summer, or at the beginning of next year - that's when the most important change needs to take place. It's well beyond time for new blood in the general manager's seat. I want a team that’s fun to watch, one that’s willing to put an honest and consistent effort night after night, one that makes the First Niagara Center a fun place to be again.
Hell, I want a team that’s capable of generating excitement instead of depending on 10,000 visiting Leafs fans or a group of drummers who hit the skins while play is still going on (seriously, why hasn’t this practice stopped yet?) to get the crowd pumped up.
Fifteen years of the same old, same old is evidence enough for me that Darcy Regier is no longer the man to build that team.