Pain and Progress

The current problems of the Buffalo Sabres lay entire in perception. The season is over. They haven’t played in months. You can’t say they are actively terrible because they have no record anymore. The issue is that you know what you’ve seen, and the perception of what’s happening with the team this summer is, well, clouded.

The Sabres signed Mike Weber on Thursday night. It appears that he will play defense for the team next season, so that’s pretty nice. On Sunday, they traded Andrej Sekera away for Jamie McBain and a second-round pick that became forward J.T. Compher. Okay, then.

The draft class is fine. Really, I’m sure it’s going to work out. It takes whole years to properly evaluate a team’s selections in the NHL Draft. This is not football. Hockey’s draft is more baseball than basketball. You pick your guys and then you wait. Like a roll of film, you hope it develops. For every first-round pick that jumps right into the lineup there are a half-dozen that take three years to develop.

The feeling surrounding the Buffalo Sabres has little to do with the draft. The first three summers of the Terry Pegula Era have been frustrating, and not just in June. It puts a strain on everything the team does. Put it this way: the Sabres drafted two big, tough defenseman in the top half of the first round on Sunday and all I could think about was Ryan Miller splayed on the ice in Boston 19 months ago.

I didn’t want my brain to go there, but I couldn’t stop it. This team’s obsession with getting bigger and tougher and stronger all goes back to a Saturday night in November when Paul Gaustad and the Sabres were found wanting by Milan Lucic’s elbow. The media narrative constantly points back to that night, and the organizational action since then indicates that the front office is following that script as well.

The first two offseasons of the Pegula Era had very different tones. The first one, full of excitement and possibility, boiled down to what Pegula saw was working for teams in the postseason his team clearly wasn’t ready for. He liked Christian Ehrhoff, and his general manager went out and got him. Ville Leino had a good postseason, and he got signed, too. Then Miller went down and they went out and missed the playoffs altogether.

The second summer was all about beating Boston. They got big hockey-playing people who were supposed to change the culture of the team. Steve Ott and Tall Fighting Guy are both under contract for next season. Whatever. The result of the “Beat Boston” gameplan was that they beat Boston. Three out of five times. Then the Bruins went on to the Stanley Cup Finals and Buffalo stayed home. The Sabres could beat Boston in the regular season, but they sure as hell couldn’t beat anyone else.

What I wanted to see from the Sabres this summer was that they have developed a clear direction for the franchise. “Rebuilding” and “suffering” are the buzzwords you’ve heard, but the actual changes have been slight. The team still feels mediocre, and I’m not so sure the rudder has really moved. They drafted 11 players and traded one, while the two best players remain on the roster. I don’t necessarily want to see either Miller or Vanek go, but pulling the trigger on those deals would at least feel like the team is going somewhere different. Even if it were—finally—true south.

The post-draft analysis for the Sabres is a bunch of “meh” for obvious reasons, the first one being that no one knows anything about these new guys. The other is just as simple: despite all the bluster and buzz about pain and progress, we’ve still been shown little evidence that anything is really different. It’s Rolston and Regier and Pegula and the guys they brought in. Miller may not have a condo, but he still has a locker. Vanek doesn’t seem to have a care in the world.

The team just… is. We’re a few days away from free agency, and the mood is oddly serene. It just feels like more meandering, a continuation of the long, slow stroll through the middle of the pack. It’s not exactly a painful walk, but I wouldn’t call it the scenic route, either.