BUFFALO — The Buffalo Sabres are very good at losing.
They were the worst team in the NHL this season. They recorded the fewest points in 2013-14, too. Their chase after coach Mike Babcock failed. They had the best odds of winning this year’s draft lottery, and that did not fall in their favor.
But their 30th-place finish guaranteed them a top-two selection in the draft, and on June 26, with the No. 2 pick, the Sabres will select Boston University’s Jack Eichel. The native of North Chelmsford, Mass., is everything a losing franchise wants: a big, generational right-shot center who plays with power, grace, and creativity.
On Tuesday, Eichel got a preview of his future workplace. As one of 120 participants in the annual NHL combine, Eichel interviewed at the First Niagara Center with several teams, including the Sabres. Eichel told his questioners, in a respectful but confident manner, that he would be better than Connor McDavid, his Canadian foil.
McDavid will go first overall, to the Edmonton Oilers, who won the draft lottery. Eichel will be second, just as he was in April at TD Garden, when BU lost to Providence in the NCAA championship.
Neither Eichel nor the Sabres, under the ownership of Terry and Kim Pegula, are intent on making second-place finishes a regular occurrence.
“It’s the missing ingredient to the psyche of this community,” Sabres president Ted Black said of winning a championship. “It’s a massive challenge. It’s one I work at every day to earn a place in that history.”
A Buffalo booster
Adam Mair’s life changed on July 24, 2002, when he was traded to Buffalo from the Los Angeles Kings. Mair’s new owner was not available to greet the center.
That day, John Rigas was arrested. The Sabres owner was charged with conspiracy to commit security fraud. The NHL assumed control of the organization. Its future in Buffalo was not guaranteed.
“It was a trying time,” Mair recalled. “There were rumors about the team being up for sale and moving.
“The sporting culture here plays a big part in the fabric of the community. The loss of the NHL franchise would have been devastating, not only to the fans but the entire community, economically and otherwise.”
Mair is just one alumnus who has experienced Buffalo’s numerous valleys. The city has been a punch line for generations. The Sabres have never won the Stanley Cup. The Bills lost four straight Super Bowls, an ignominy defined by Scott Norwood and wide right. Even today’s NHLers gripe about bleak Buffalo being the worst road city in the league.
Yet Mair, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, now considers Buffalo home. He is the head development coach of the Academy of Hockey. The program is located in the new HarborCenter, a two-rink facility located next to the First Niagara Center. Two years ago, the building was a parking lot.
Mair and his family settled in Buffalo because he thinks it’s unique. The people are friendly. The cost of living is low compared with other NHL cities. He likes the Pegulas, who are his employers. And Mair experienced how good life can be when the Sabres succeed.
In 2005-06, Mair was a bottom-six grinder on a team that advanced to the Eastern Conference final. The next year, the Sabres qualified for the East final again. General manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff led a progressive, up-tempo team that had veterans such as Chris Drury, Mike Grier, and Danny Briere. They had good young players in Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, and Ryan Miller.
“There was a sense of belief again in the organization with back-to-back conference finals. It really happened quickly,” Mair said. “It was exciting for the community and the fans in Buffalo.
“I’ve played in Toronto. I was out in Los Angeles. The blue-collar fans of Buffalo are like no other. They’re educated about the sport. They root their team on. They’re there to watch the game and support the franchise. The entire community is behind you.”
But the fans who supported Mair’s teams would be disappointed again. Drury and Briere left as free agents. Vanek, Pominville, Roy, and Miller were traded. Regier was fired. So was Ruff, along with the next two coaches, Ron Rolston and Ted Nolan.
The last two seasons, no team has failed like the Sabres.
Losing to win
On Jan. 9, 2014, Tim Murray became Buffalo’s general manager. It didn’t take long for the fireworks to begin. On Feb. 28, Murray traded Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis in a package that included Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart. The next day, Pat LaFontaine resigned as president of hockey operations. The ex-Sabre had been on the job for less than four months.
When LaFontaine first took the position, he brought back Nolan, his former coach. After 2013-14, Murray signed Nolan to a three-year extension. Murray fired Nolan on April 12 of this year.
Nolan’s struggles as a coach mirrored the laughable roster he was given. In 2014-15, Stewart, Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Jhonas Enroth, Michal Neuvirth, Brian Flynn, and Torrey Mitchell became ex-Sabres. The plan was to accumulate futures and guarantee a top-two pick.
In other words, to lose.
“It’s a huge risk,” Black said. “That’s why teams don’t undertake rebuilds lightly. There is that chance that your base deteriorates, your TV ratings decline, and your revenues go away. Those are very difficult things to consider when you’re going to go through a long-term plan.”
Murray, with support from Pegula, didn’t think there was an alternative. Teams have succeeded by picking high, including current Stanley Cup finalists Chicago (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews) and Tampa Bay (Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman). Edmonton (McDavid, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall) could be next.
Since 2012, the Sabres have landed five first-round players: Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, and Zemgus Girgensons. They’ve also picked seven players in the second round.
None, however, has Eichel’s ceiling. Eichel most recently played for Team USA at the World Championships, where Dan Bylsma, named Buffalo’s coach last Thursday, was an assistant. The teenager’s competition included NHL veterans Evgeni Malkin and Tomas Plekanec. In 10 games, Eichel scored two goals and had five assists.
“You have a chance to see a guy,” Bylsma said during his introductory press conference, “who’s going to be an elite, elite player.”
Part of a revival
The teenagers participating in the combine are staying at the Courtyard hotel, one block away from the First Niagara Center. On Friday and Saturday, they will go through fitness testing at HarborCenter. In February of 2011, when Black assumed his current title, neither facility existed.
“That building was abandoned,” said Black, pointing to the Courtyard. “Where the replica canals are, that was a chain-linked pit. There’s grass sod all underneath the skyway here. When we got here, it was all gravel.”
The footprint of land off Lake Erie surrounding the First Niagara Center was known by several names, including the “inner harbor” and “commercial slip.” Now residents call it Canalside. The Pegulas spent $100,000 on sod. Adirondack chairs are placed on the grass. Activities include concerts, yoga, and puppet shows. Public skating takes place during the winter.
Black considers the parcel the epicenter of Buffalo’s renaissance.
Eichel will become part of this growth. He will become the Sabres’ franchise player, Buffalo’s version of Malkin or Sidney Crosby, who were once Bylsma’s charges in Pittsburgh.
Eichel and Buffalo already have a history. On Sept. 25, 2014, Eichel played in the All-American Prospects Game at First Niagara Center. Eichel had a goal and an assist and was named player of the game.
The combine, formerly held in Toronto near Pearson International Airport, is in its first year in Buffalo. It will be here next year as well. The draft will take place at First Niagara Center in 2016.
Eichel is already coming off a rebuild. In 2013-14, BU went 10-21-4. A year later, the Terriers were 28-8-5. Eichel had 26 goals and 45 assists in 40 games. He won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player.
“He’s got the frame, the ability to skate, and the ability to make plays,” said Mair, who viewed Eichel during the All-American Prospects Game. “He’s not afraid to go to the net. He’s got the ability to score.
“What’s going to separate him is his skating ability, matching up with his strength and size. That’s difficult to contain. That’s an exciting package for a young centerman.”
It will take time for the Sabres to develop into a contender. Tyler Ennis is their only proven impact player. In February, they traded for Evander Kane, whom the Winnipeg Jets considered too toxic to keep around. The Sabres need more NHL players, including a goalie.
Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, was a 19-year-old rookie when he won a Cup with the Bruins. A similar development is not in Eichel’s future, but he will grow with the Sabres and with Buffalo. If Eichel and the Sabres win the Cup, Buffalo will celebrate like no city has before.
Asked why a Cup would be so meaningful, Black said with a laugh, “You come from Boston. You can’t understand.
“I just think it’s the missing ingredient from the psyche of this community, for all the history of bad luck, bad fate, being a runner-up.
“I’m not going to say that if it doesn’t happen, the city’s going to crumble and fall into the lake. But I think there’s so much other momentum going on that it would really mean a lot.”