The further I get away from it, the more I love this post. My love of claymation cartoons aside, the most important part of that post seems to be this:
There is a lot to say about this team, where they are strong, where they are weak and what these things mean. However, I don’t think we will really know what to think about them until everything is all said and done. I have no idea where this season will end, but the more I think about it the more that ending is necessary to provide the proper reference point for evaluation.
It seems egotistical to gush about your own writing, but what I liked about that post is that I seemed to realize something new about being a sports fan. It was something that had never come up like that: hindsight is necessary to properly gauge certain things about sports. Game-by-game reaction is extremely useful and can reveal the true emotions of the season, but to properly grasp things you need to know the ending. Now that we have that ending, we can really take a hard look at the last 88 games and tell the story.
I’ll be honest: Monday night didn’t give me the sort of answers I was looking for. I still don’t understand Adam Mair or what happened to Tim Connolly, and I might not ever get why this team didn’t “want it” as much as Boston did. I understand the Bruins’ gameplan and how well it was executed, and I know rage towards Satan and Paille and Chara is pointless, but last night didn’t feel like the last chapter of anything to me. In fact, since Game Four ended I’ve been thinking less about the failures in this series and more about The System.
When most Sabres fans talk about The System they think of Lindy Ruff. It’s a term he uses to describe the defensive strategies and overall style of the team. It’s the gameplan on the ice, something the players have to buy in to and execute well in order for it to be successful. As fans we often mock The System, especially when we see defensive breakdowns or uninterested players. Still, the idea of a “system” is by nature infallible: it’s merely the idea of perfect execution, and so anything short of that is the fault of those involved. It can never be The System, but rather the failures of those unable to fulfill its ideals.
But that’s not the “system” I’ve been thinking about. To me “The System” is the larger plan for the Sabres, and it’s working like a charm.
It started with something Chris said to me a few days ago. He said he couldn’t wait to see what Gerbe and Ennis looked like in two years. Thinking long-term, he figured that was the next logical run for this team. I agreed with him, but the more I thought about it that statement struck an oddly familiar chord. Isn’t that what everyone said about guys like Pominville and Roy and Stafford two years ago? “I can’t wait to see how they look in two years.” That was all we heard once the shock of the Drury and Briere departures wore off.
In fact, the story going into the postseason was very similar to that. The talk was that the former role players were ready to lead. Pominville, Roy and Connolly were ready to make a big impact and lead the way. Where three years ago they were the secondary threats, these players were grown up and ready to be the big guns. You can argue how accurate that storyline was, but you can’t argue with the failures of those players. The playoff veterans on this team failed to step up, and fringe guys like Tim Kennedy, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe simply outplayed them this postseason. Dead end players like Mike Grier and Cody McCormick had more intensity than the big salaried, big name players we were excited about two or three years ago.
So now the Sabres are eliminated from the playoffs, and a lot of fans are disappointed. They are tired of 9, 19 and 29 and want to clean house. They can’t wait to see what 13, 42 and 63 can do in the future. They are sad but feel there is hope for the future. There is Miller, there is Myers, and maybe that’s enough to make something happen if we get lucky.
The more you think about it, that’s the real System, isn’t it? Get fans excited about young talent, and perpetual excitement about the future. Sell potential rather than results. This isn’t some tin foil hat theory about Tom Golisano, this is just how it works. It’s the same thing we’ve seen the last couple of years, a cycle that has worked wonders for the organization and kept them afloat during a period where many other sports franchises have suffered huge losses.
It’s the offseason now, and a lot of fans are angry. They will demand change, talk about change for a few weeks, grow tired of it and wait to see what happens. Think about all the fuss about Lindy Ruff last year. For everyone that talked about firing him, nothing happened and we moved on. The team signed Steve Montador and Mike Grier, fans complained Darcy didn’t do enough, then forgot about it once training camp started. Then Miller went on a tear, Myers didn’t regress, and we were all back on board.
It happens every year. That’s the cycle we go through as fans; the team knows that and it’s only going to happen again. People will yell and scream about getting rid of Ruff and Regier, but neither are going anywhere. Darcy has set up the farm system nicely, Lindy does his thing and the team will draft well. They will lose one UFA defenseman and bring up Weber, re-sign the RFAs and maybe make a mildly surprising UFA pickup. We will complain they didn’t do enough, but once the season starts back up we will be right there.
Ticket prices will go up slightly, but not enough to completely turn you away from the gate. The team will get new jerseys and celebrate the team’s anniversary, and we have a banner to put up. Ticket sales won’t go down, jersey sales will go up, and the team will make the playoffs again if Miller stays healthy. The team makes a little extra on the home playoff games, and we see what the kids from Portland can do for us. That’s The System, and it’s working quite well if you ask me. This is a franchise that has learned its lesson in “going for it” with a salary at the cap limit. It doesn’t have to do that to be successful, and so it won’t. Instead it will rely on great goaltender and the potential of youth, hoping for a perfect storm of things to win it all.
This isn’t a damning rant against the Sabres organization. In a way it’s a respectful tip of the cap to them for figuring out how to play the game. The audience is captive, the product is sucessful, and they are doing a good job of capitalizing on it. Still, it is important to understand how these things work. The world of sports is split right down the middle. On one side is being a fan. The cheering, the spectating, the hoping beyond all rationality that this will be the year. Then there is business of sports. Providing a product, making money, perpetuating a brand. Making sure that first side is attractive, then capitalizing on it.
In Buffalo both sides of the sports world do their jobs really well, but I think understanding that latter half of the world is essential. It’s not defeatist to say the Sabres are unwilling to spend to the cap ceiling and “go for it” every year. In a way that’s fiscally irresponsible. Why waste the money and mismanage your other major asset (players) for the sake of one big push.
Now that’s not to say the Sabres don’t want to win the Stanley Cup. Of course they do, they just aren’t going all in anytime soon. For The System to get them there they need a lot of things to happen right. It almost happened a few years ago, sure, but those moments are rare. The goaltending needs to be there, players need to overachieve, and most importantly you need to get really, really lucky.
The Sabres are simply not set up to do what other teams do to improve. They will not blow things up to get high draft picks like the Penguins and Capitals have done, nor will they sign high-value free agents. Instead they will stay mediocre and rebuild from within, using the assets they evaluate and try to gain an advantage.
The smarter fans have grown to understand that the Sabres will not be drafting the next Sidney Crosby very soon, and that what Darcy does at the trade deadline has minimal real impact on the team. Understanding these realities, however, makes me think understanding The System isn’t that far off. In fact, I think it explains a few other things that have been lingering around this team as well.
When fan perception is that the front office isn’t willing to go “all in” year in and year out, they become unwilling to do the same. The fact of the matter is that something really special happened in this area three years ago. The Sabres had two very, very sucessful hockey seasons that ended in disapointment, but fan support was never better. Darcy spent to the cap and the message was clear: this is our chance. As a result, fans truly embraced this team in a way they haven’t supported a sports team in years.
But we all know how that ended, and how scarred it left some fans. It is obvious the psychological trauma of losing in this town has left people cynical when it comes to sports. Sure, you cheer for your team no matter what, but there is always that waiting for the other shoe to drop. That playoff run the team made, however, felt different. For some I think they truly forgot to wait for that shoe to drop, they got so caught up in the potential that they were sure “this was the year.’
So when it all fell apart, it hurt more than ever. I think that fresh trauma has left a distinct mark on how fans have treated the Sabres since. It’s not that they aren’t as drunk or don’t want to annoy their season ticket neighbors by cheering, they just don’t know if the team has it and don’t want to get too deep until they know for sure. They’re not going “all in” if they don’t think the team is doing the same.
The problem is that they aren’t going to see those tell-tale signs that the team is going all out. Darcy isn’t going to hire a big gun, and we have the players we are going to live and die with. So we gravitate towards Ryan Miller and Tyler Myers and Thomas Vanek because they are great, and maybe we expect too much from Roy and Pominville and Connolly. But honestly, what else do we have?
We have to hope the “core” gets things together because we know they aren’t going anywhere. We have to look at Portland and the rookies that can’t grow a proper beard to come up big in the playoffs even if they have no business leading the way on a professional hockey team. Not yet, at least.
This post might be completely worthless, but the more I think about it all the more it makes sense. We are not trapped as sports fans, and I didn’t just reveal that there is no Santa Claus. Still, I think taking a long, hard look at how all this works is necessary. What are we getting out of being Sabres fans, and what are they getting out of us?
The two sides of the sports world can coexist peacefully if they are mutually satisfied. The System is working for the business side of the Sabres, but are we as fans willing to wait for a perfect storm to get a true chance at something special? What happens upstairs and what happens on the ice are completely different, but they directly affect eachother. This year’s Sabres have wasted a Vezina-worthy season in net and a Calder winner on the blueline. Is that okay if we get to see what they look like in two years?
If The System really exists, is it fair to us?