By Monday morning, Buffalo Sabres fans will feel one of two ways: They will either feel like their team has a new direction, a clear-cut vision for success and an identity or like they're permanently stuck in Hockey Purgatory, floating between 12th and 6th place for the rest of existence.
We've said time and time again that the former can not happen with general manager Darcy Regier at the helm. But it can. During Terry Pegula's first off-season as owner, Regier gave us reason to believe he had the gall to pull the trigger on signing free agents and trades.
He acquired Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino – all veterans with at least some track record for success. They were added to a lineup that had reached the post-season the year before and gone to a seventh game against Philadelphia.
Regier's moves gained much attention. The national media predicted the Sabres would break out and, oddly enough, the stats guys agreed. Hockey Prospectus predicted Buffalo would finish second in the Eastern Conference based on player production projections.
Of course it didn't work out. But for that summer two years ago, we had reason to believe Regier could pull off the big move. It appeared he had a plan: Put together a group of proven veterans who will take a professional approach to winning. It made a lot of sense at the time.
Now that it's all fallen apart, all fans can do is hope Regier has another plan – maybe one that will be built for more long-term success than getting aged or extremely flawed players for his club.
Where to start?
Regier and the Sabres need to decide what type of team they're going to be.
Before drafting, before trading Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, before re-signing any more RFA's, before eating breakfast on Day One of free agency – decide what other teams are going to expect when they come to Buffalo. Because over the past five years, they've been able to expect a tough goalie and a mentally and physically weak team in front of him.
With the current roster, the Sabres have identity options. We'd all like them to flash back to the Ted Nolan days of the “hardest working team in hockey,” but they don't have to be.
They could decide to go go all-in on skill players. The current makeup of the roster is shaded heavily toward skill with the team's top forwards being one-dimensional offensive players like Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford, Vanek and Mikhail Grigorenko.
Regier could approach the trade, trading and free agency with skill in mind. He could pull together three lines of speed and scoring and try to win games 5-4 like the 05-06 days. You might say that doesn't work in 2013 and you'd be mostly right, but it was more or less the model of this year's Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals. The Caps struggled with puck possession, often left their goalie out to dry, but relied on a highly-skilled power play and a fast-paced game to carry them.
Sure, the Caps didn't win the Cup, but they made the playoffs. And they've made the playoffs year after year behind a similar model. You'd certainly take their results over that of the Sabres in the last five years.
The problem with the Capitals' model is that it isn't built to win in the post-season, when penalties all but disappear, the physical play is turned up as is the heat on goaltenders. And the puck possession teams rule the day.
This year's two finals teams ranked second and fourth in possession. Last year's Cup winner ranked fourth and so on and so on. The teams who went deep into the playoffs, with the exception of the Crosby-led Penguins, were mentally and physically tough puck possession teams with hardcore leadership and out-of-this-world determination. See: Bergeron, Patrice, if you need an example.
The Sabres aren't that far away from building at team that can possess the puck, win battles, block shots and lock you down defensively. Really. Seriously. They aren't that far off.
Last year's first-rounder Zemgus Girgensons showed in the AHL this season he should be a centerpiece to the Sabres' future plans. His post-season performance and progression combined with his will to compete and win was fresh air in a hockey environment polluted with laziness and complacency.
Kevin Porter, Steve Ott, Mike Weber, Patrick Kaleta, Brian Flynn, Mark Pysyk, Marcus Foligno and Nathan Gerbe all fit into the “hardest working” category. That's a pretty solid portion of the roster. Those guys can compete on a playoff level even if several are short on talent.
The Sabres have two half-filled in puzzles. One that's middle piece is Grigorenko – a questionable worker with unquestionable skill. The other is around Girgensons – who's offensive upside isn't as high, but his work ethic is through the roof.
This weekend, Darcy Regier can begin filling in one side of the puzzle. He can begin finding the building blocks to a high-flying exiting team or a group that grinds its way to victory. You can win either way and we'll take it any way we can get there.
But Regier can not continue to simply look for the best value in trades and signings. Two half-filled puzzles down fit together just because they're half and half.
At Sunday's draft, the Sabres have some options for both sides with their 8th and 16th overall picks (should they choose to keep them).
For the hard-working team, they could select Elias Lindholm, a Swedish center who is described as a hard back-checker (imagine that...) and winner of battles in the corners. There's also a guy that's been called one of the better two-way players in the draft in Bo Hovart, a 6-foot, 200-pound center expected to be in the bottom part of the top 10. The descriptions you'll find all say “hard working, defensively skilled...”
For the super skill team, there's Max Domi, another top 15 projected player who is known for his explosive offensive skill and questionable defensive zone coverage. There's even a few offensive defenseman such as Josh Morrissey – a WHL'er called the best pure offensive defender in the draft.
Pick one group and stick to it. Don't pick for best value or the guy highest on the experts' boards. Pick the two guys that fit who you want to be as a team in 2014 and beyond.
Trades and free agency should take the same approach. If the Sabres were to pick the hard working option, they'd need to move Ennis, Hodgson, Stafford and a few others who don't have the scoring skills to justify their lack of defensive abilities and toughness.
Sometimes addition by subtraction is necessary.
Finding an identity would at least give Sabres fans a reason to believe in the future. The ship of hoping that a group of hap-hazard moves will magically bond into a Cup champ has long sailed. And thinking they'll lose and eventually land the next Crosby might as well be hoping to roll a pair of 7s about 50 times in a row.
You don't need Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane to compete. The Bruins built their core with a few savvy trades and signings and some second-round (or later) picks named Krejci, Marchand, Bergeron and Lucic.
If the Sabres want to become that blue collar team of the 90s again, go ahead. If they want to become the skilled team of 05-06 again, go ahead. But they can't fall in between. And their first step toward finding that identity begins Sunday June 30.
If they still appear to be wavering after this weekend, they'll not only be on empty in terms of fan faith, they'll also be setting us up for years and years more of 6th to 12th place