As you watch the NHL playoffs you may be inclined to feel like the Sabres are "far away" because they don't look like they could compete with the teams that are still playing. You'd be wrong to say that. While there is work to be done, to suggest it will take multiple years just to be competitive, is to take this team off the hook.
It does take a bit of time to build a consistent Stanley Cup contender. It does not take several years. We can hit each other with sample sizes out the wazoo. You can point to teams that suffered for a while, while I point to groups that had a big bounce in one year.
For the purposes of this piece, I want to look back at last year's NHL Draft.
*If you're reading this, and you read my pieces regularly you're probably expecting a big piece about picking at the top right? I still support that 100000% but that's not what I'm into today.
Here's the top 7 from last year's NHL entry draft.
1 Nail Yakupov (LW) Russia Edmonton Oilers Sarnia (OHL)
2 Ryan Murray (D) Canada Columbus Blue Jackets Everett (WHL)
3 Alex Galchenyuk (C) United States Montreal Canadiens Sarnia (OHL)
4 Griffin Reinhart (D) Canada New York Islanders Edmonton (WHL)
5 Morgan Rielly (D) Canada Toronto Maple Leafs Moose Jaw (WHL)
6 Hampus Lindholm (D) Sweden Anaheim Ducks Rögle (Allsvenskan)
7 Mathew Dumba (D) Canada Minnesota Wild Red Deer (WHL)
I've cherry picked the top 7 because Pittsburgh traded into the 8 spot. Let's look at the 7 worst teams in the NHL last year. Five of them made the playoffs this year.
Edmonton and Columbus missed. Each of those teams is chock full of young talent and will continue to build from here.
At 3rd overall Montreal went from the worst team in the East, to the 2 seed and a division title. The Canadiens played at a 107 point pace this season. That's a gain of 29 points in one year. They added rookie Alex Galchenyuk at the top of the draft. Brendan Gallagher became a force in his first season and is a Calder finalist (He had played ZERO NHL games coming into the year). Brandon Prust was added along with a new coach, and GM. The Canadiens went from Conference Finals in 2010, to last in East, right back to the top of the conference. A first round loss is a disappointment, but this seems like - PROGRESS.
At 4th overall the New York Islanders might have it the best. They've suffered, right? This team had to wait a bit for its stars to become stars. Or did they? John Tavares was a point-per-game player last year. This season they added Lubomir Visnovsky (+12 in his 35 games) and got a big season out of Brad Boyes too (sorry Lindy...top line minutes matter). Last year the Islanders were a -52. This year they were EVEN. Some of it was "growing up", but 4th worst to 8th in East - PROGRESS.
The 5th worst team in the league was Toronto. The Leafs during Brian Burke's tenure were a total mess defensively. I mean awful. Bottom five every year for Burke. In the 2011-2012 season they gave up more goals than any team in the league. This year, with a new GM, new coach, and some new players (that Burke acquired for sure), they were 18th in goals against and a +12 on goal differential. Much like the Islanders, this improvement is quite remarkable. A +12 this season pro-rates to a +20 in an 82 game season. The Islanders improved by 52. The Leafs by 53. ONE YEAR. Progress.
Picking 6th, Anaheim. The Ducks fired their coach and brought in Bruce Boudreau who has been a proven performer in the NHL. Four division titles with the Caps and now one with the Ducks. Anaheim opted to re-sign its big stars and pay them tons of money. A new young goaltender has a new contract and the Ducks go out with a 7 game loss. From 6th, to 2nd in the West. ONE YEAR. Progress.
Picking 7th Minnesota. Zach Parise, Ryan Suter in the offseason. The Wild are not Cup contenders just yet. However, the 200 million dollars spent in the July frenzy for those two free agents shows what you can do in just one offseason.
None of these teams has reached the Sabres ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. Each of them is feeling much better about where they're headed.
Each time you see a team like the Islanders or Leafs missing for multiple seasons, you'll have someone telling you that it took all that time to turn it around. Sorry, but I think that's wrong. Missing the playoffs and getting high picks can help you fortify your roster, but missing consistently is absolutely unnecessary. Just this past season we watched as 5 of the 7 worst teams in the league made it and showed vast improvement.
Through the draft, through free agency, or through a shakeup at the top...you simply do not have to take years to do it. The Sabres are on 6 without a playoff series win. Two without the playoffs. The "suffering" has been happening.
Trade Miller and Vanek. Acquire the right pieces in exchange.
Don't trade Miller or Vanek. Acquire players to fill in around them.
There are countless ways to start things in the right direction. We each have our own idea of what will work and what will be most effective.
All of the teams above are in a different mode of rebuild, revamp, reform or recharge. Time will tell on their long term plans. Perhaps Anaheim gets into cap jail and ages poorly. Maybe Montreal overachieved and we find out they're not built for the long term.
Even the perennial losers like the Leafs and Islanders, went from total dog status to competitive in one lockout shortened season. Everyone has groundwork. Make the right moves.
Don't let anyone convince you that it has to take years just to compete.