Building Buffalo

The Buffalo Sabres have 71 games left in the 2013-14 NHL season. To look at the remaining games on that schedule is to stare into the gaping maw of hell itself. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. I’m mostly just bored. The Sabres look like a bunch of teenagers playing against grown ass men. The results are remarkably predictable.

tumblr_mgzfh6KYkR1qmtheto1_500I’ve written about last night’s game elsewhere, but watching the Colorado Avalanche dominate the Sabres on Saturday night was a great look at what the Sabres could have been this year. A young team loaded with potential and superstar talent thanks to a No. 1 draft pick. A rookie coach inspiring his squad and getting results out of a team playing fun hockey.

Instead, the Sabres have two superstars waiting to get shipped out of town, the team mirrors its uninspiring coach and the franchise looks like a mess. At this point, three games removed from their first win and with a huge chunk of the season remaining, I can’t help but remember that it didn’t have to be this way.

The most upsetting thing about Lindy Ruff’s firing earlier this year was not that Ruff got the axe. That, actually, was a relief. The concerning thing was that Sabres brass said the move was made with making the playoffs in mind. Wrong answer. Firing your head coach 17 games into an abbreviated season is a chance for the least painful flameout in NHL history. Instead, they tried in vain to actually turn the ship around. It failed badly.

It’s the obvious move in hindsight. It was almost too easy. A (half) half-season of suffering with an immediate benefit for the next year. You’d barely even notice it, really. The team already started poorly, what’s two dozen more bad results? You didn’t even need to get the worst pick to gain immediate results. A top five pick gets you a superstar on your roster in mere months.

After firing Ruff, the Sabres went from possibly the worst team in hockey to the eighth worst. They traded their captain at the deadline and were still talking about cracking the top eight in the conference. It was that set of mixed messages that set up this season, full of uncertainty and losses and the remarkable sinking feeling that all this rebuilding isn’t actually constructing anything of value.

What’s happening right now—that uneasy feeling you get when you watch these games—is not suffering or sacrificing or anything of value. It’s doubt, mostly because you’re not sure if anything positive is happening here. The team looks so irrevocably broken that you wonder if it will negatively impact all these young players they’re supposed to build around. You worry about Vanek and Miller because they are the Stars You Know and don’t know what will happen to The Next Stars we’re supposed to be developing. The so-called Blueprint, a motto splayed across website banners and co-opted Twitter hashtags, looks incomplete and wildly conceptual. It’s a plan that looks very much in doubt at this stage of construction.

tumblr_mutyut7WAC1qz6f9yo1_500Let’s be clear: This is not a rebuild. This is trying to live in a home that’s being haphazardly remodeled. It’s taking a shower in a bathroom that has two walls; making lunch on a folding table while your fridge sits in the living room. This is plastic tarps full of murky rainwater hovering over your hardwood floors. It’s chaos made bearable by the promise of improvement and the reality that we haven’t been given a better option.

This is a team unwilling to acknowledge a past with Jason Pominville and unable to decide whether its future will have Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller in it. All this losing is supposed to help the team get somewhere later, but it’s hard to say the team knows where it is right now, let alone where it’s going. It’s a mess, no one seems to have any answers and it doesn’t look like it’s getting better.

The problem is the tickets are bought, chanting means nothing, and not showing up only deprives you of the slight entertainment value of watching another team play good hockey at the Sabres’ expense. The only thing left to do is trust the contractor or hope he’s getting replaced soon.

I’m not optimistic about either option.