Rolston's Sabres: 15-11-5

Sabres: The one thing left to ponder



We've been going over it for weeks.

When Darcy Regier said after the season that suffering is in Sabres fans' futures, what did he mean? He had to mean something he thought of as worse than watching the Sabres scrap for eighth place five of the last six years, and in four of them fall short. But exactly what he meant isn't clear.

What is Regier's definition of rebuilding? What's the plan? References to the 2012 Paul Gaustad trade as some example of rebuilding fail to hold water when considering that the Sabres were ready to take down the Skyway for Shane Doan. Again, not clear -- or at least not consistent.

So on and on we've talked, pondering rebuilding and suffering and losing and drafting high.

It's confusing enough to figure out what the Sabres' plans are without folding in one more important variable:

We shouldn't assume they'll be that bad.

It was Sunday's draft, an inherently optimistic event, that helped awaken me to the important realities both of what kind of team they have, and, just as importantly, how the National Hockey League is structured to help weaker clubs.

The Sabres are 15-11-5 under their current coach, Ron Rolston. That is by no means a terrible record; in fact, it's decent. They put up that record despite numerous problems: Tyler Myers' erratic play, then season-shortening leg injury; Thomas Vanek's injury absence for nine of those 31 games; Ryan Miller's career-high goals-against average; discouraged, beaten-down fans that could barely muster the strength to cheer goals in home games; only six goals from Drew Stafford; Ville Leino's mere six points; and more.

Assuming improvements from each of these players next year -- or at least those still in Sabres colors -- the team might expect a win percentage better than .500. (I'm not saying I do, I'm saying they might. Advanced stats on the Sabres say their record was better than deserved. Fenwick Close, an excellent predictive statistic measuring puck possession and shot attempts, ranked the Sabres 30th in the league, or last.)

Not only was the Sabres' record average under Rolston, as opposed to worse, the NHL goes the distance to keep the bottom teams close to the top. This takes on many forms: Points for losing in overtime and shootouts keep the standings compacted; the salary cap and floor force teams to spend fairly equally; the nature of hockey itself gives lesser-talented teams a better chance to win than those in other sports; and the draft, like in all sports, rewards losers (which I hate, by the way).

Look at what happened to Anaheim last year. The Ducks, like the Sabres in the matter of Miller and Vanek, had two stars entering the last years of their contracts, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. They entered last season having missed the playoffs in two of the last three years, and not having won a series in four. They spent the off-season dealing with reports that they were about to trade away another star, Bobby Ryan.

However, the Ducks came out of the lockout with a stunning 22-3-4 record. (Advanced stats never respected the Ducks, for the record. But 22-3-4!) And what do you know, they signed Getzlaf and Perry to long-term deals.

In the second half they, predictably, regressed, and they unsurprisingly to Fenwick fans went out in Round 1.

I do not -- repeat, do NOT -- want the Sabres to follow Anaheim's lead. Those huge contracts for Getzlaf and Perry are regrettably long and expensive, and the Ducks will regret signing one or both of them. Anaheim's record was a mirage. What they should have done is traded them for assets and started over. They did not, to the rest of the league's benefit.

Who can be certain next year's Sabres will not repeat this, especially with Miller and Vanek in there -- in contract years no less? Maybe the Sabres hold onto these players and start well, even really well, and the climate changes and both players sign long-term deals to stay.

If you ask me, that scenario is what I'd call suffering.