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Transitioning out of the “tank”

What word can best describe the time period from the end of the 2013 season to the end of the 2014-15 season for the Buffalo Sabres?

Suffering.

Before the 2012-13 season, the Buffalo Sabres had never lost more than 42 games in an 82 game season. They have lost 51 in each of the last two seasons.

Over the past 164 games, the Buffalo Sabres have amassed a record of 44-102-18.

Only former general manager Darcy Regier could have given us that from the start.

One thing that can be agreed upon by many people is that the suffering appears to be over, and thank goodness it is.

Last Friday, the Buffalo Sabres fell in Columbus 4-2, to the Blue Jackets, to officially claim last place in the National Hockey League standings, for the second consecutive season. The most important factor of finishing last is that the Sabres now have the opportunity to draft either Connor McDavid at the first overall position, or Jack Eichel at the second overall spot. Both, according to experts throughout, are generational-type players that can change the course of a franchise for years to come.

Let us just recap, and take some time, to reflect on what has transpired over the past two seasons that has brought the Sabres to this point.

Last season, the Sabres finished the season 21-51-10 and tallied 52 points, in a year in which we thought could not get any worse than it did. The Sabres fired general manager Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston, hired Pat LaFontaine to be President of Hockey Operations and brought back Ted Nolan to coach the team in November. LaFontaine hired general manager Tim Murray in January, and then LaFontaine left the team in March. Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were traded out of Buffalo before the trade deadline, and the Sabres finished the season in last place.

This season, Buffalo finished 23-51-8 and tallied only 54 points. The season began with a 3-13-2 record before winning 10 of the next 13 games and improving to 13-16-2. At that point, the Sabres were 22nd in the league, and were just four points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Then, an epic meltdown took place. The Sabres lost 18 of 19 games, including a 14-game regulation losing streak that sent the Sabres straight back to the basement. In that streak, the Sabres went winless through the entire month of January without registering a single point until February 3, when the Sabres finally ended its losing streak against the Montréal Canadiens.

Then, on February 11, Tim Murray and the Sabres pulled off one of the biggest trades of the season, when Buffalo acquired left winger Evander Kane from the Winnipeg Jets. Along with Kane, Buffalo also acquired defenseman Zach Bogosian and goalie prospect Jason Kasdorf. In return, the Sabres shipped out defenseman Tyler Myers, forward Drew Stafford, prospects Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux, and the lowest of the three first-round picks the Sabres have at the 2015 NHL Draft.

The Sabres also made numerous trades before the trade deadline, including goaltenders Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. Buffalo also shipped out Chris Stewart, Torrey Mitchell, and Brian Flynn before the March 2 trade deadline to retool the team heading into the final 19 games of the year.

In those final 19 games, Buffalo went 4-12-3 and had a nail-bitting race for last place with the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes. When it came time to face the Coyotes at the First Niagara Center in late March, people were cheering for the opposing team as Sam Gagner ended the game in overtime. In the end, the Sabres finish the year just two points ahead of the Coyotes in the epic race foe 30th place.

Just one day following the season finale loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tim Murray terminated Ted Nolan from the head coaching position with the hockey club.

Now, heading into the off-season, the Sabres begin a search for a head coach and will sit back in anticipation of the NHL Draft Lottery, this Saturday, and the NHL Draft in June.

Finishing last place in the NHL the past two seasons was the first couple steps, of many, changing the direction of the franchise for years to come. The departure of Ted Nolan was the next step. Now, it is just time to sit back and wait on the playoffs and to see what happens next. But lets go over what to expect this offseason:

Search for a head coach:

This is the first time that Tim Murray will be able to hire a coach best suited for his needs. The list of the available head coaches could be more extensive this offseason than in prior years before.

The first name that comes to mind that could be available is current Detroit Red Wings coach, Mike Babcock. Babcock is currently trying to lead the Red Wings to another Stanley Cup title, in which could be his final season in the Motor City. Babcock is a free agent at the end of the season, and if Detroit fails to re-sign him Buffalo could be on the top of his wish list. With the list of prospects in the system that will become household names in the future of the organization, including McDavid or Eichel, how could a coach like Babcock say no? Plus, a hockey culture that seems to be growing more and more, and an owner with billions of dollars and money to spend could lure a name like Babcock’s to Buffalo. Remember: Babcock and Murray go back quite some time in the days when Babcock was the head coach in Anaheim with the, then, Mighty Ducks.

Another name that has been mentioned numerous time is current Binghamton Senators head coach, Luke Richardson. Richardson has been with Murray before, when Murray was the general manager for the American Hockey League affiliate of the Ottawa Senators. In three seasons in Binghamton, Richardson has led the Senators to a 120-81-24 record, and two trips to the Calder Cup playoffs.

Other names that could be available for the head coaching spot is Dan Bylsma, Paul MacLean, Dave Tippett, and possibly someone like a Todd McLellan or Claude Julien.

Who is coming back?:

Buffalo has a number of players who are projected to be unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents this offseason.

Quite possibly the biggest issue is who will be retained through restricted free agency. Mikhail Grigorenko, Johan Larsson, and Mark Pysyk are your top three biggest names in the restricted pool, with a spot for them on the future roster is not guaranteed. Both Grigorenko and Larsson showed some huge progress in the last stretch of games by logging more minutes and making the most of every minute. We know what Pysyk is going to give you night-in and night-out, but his health may be a growing concern. All three are most likely going to be retained, unless a team wants to acquire their rights and the Sabres can swing a trade and get some sort of value out of them.

The unrestricted free agent pool is light compared to the names in the restricted pool, however the Sabres do need to stay over the salary cap floor still. One notable free agent that comes to mind is defenseman Andrej Meszaros. At first, Meszaros’ season was a nightmare, but like Grigorneko and Larsson, his season turned around and he became an asset that could return for another year. Last year his cap hit was $4.125 million, but probably will not get as much as he did this season.

Other notable names on this list include Patrick Kaleta (UFA), Andre Benoit (UFA), Tyson Strachan (UFA), Matt Ellis (UFA), Tim Schaller (RFA), Phil Varone (RFA), and Zac Dalpe (RFA).

Goaltending:

Who will man the nets in the 2015-16 season for the Sabres? Your guess is as good as ours.

Anders Lindback is an unrestricted free agent, and could be re-signed if Tim Murray has faith in the 6′ 6″ goaltender, who changed his game under goaltender coach Arturs Irbe. Matt Hackett is another unrestricted free agent that could return to the Sabres, but at this point he will hit the market without a new contract from the Sabres.

Chad Johnson, acquired in the Michal Neuvirth trade, still has a year remaining on his contract, and will be a Buffalo Sabre next season.

Matt O’Connor is still unsigned, and all signs indicate that Sabres are still interested in the 6′ 5″ Boston University goaltender. O’Connor did help the Terriers make a trip to the NCAA Championship game this season following a 10-win season in 2013-14. If the Sabres land O’Connor, the likelihood of Buffalo retaining Lindback will most likely go down the drain.

Linus Ullmark, 2013 6th-round pick from Sweden and the Swedish Hockey League goalie of the year in 2013-14, is expected to make the jump from the SHL to North America, and will most likely start next season either in Rochester with the Americans or in Elmira with the Jackals.

#McTopPick and the Draft:

The NHL Draft Lottery is Saturday, which is when Buffalo will know if the Sabres will draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Buffalo has a 20.0-percent chance of retaining the first overall pick and selecting McDavid, but will only drop to second if the team loses the lottery.

While Eichel’s season in college is over, McDavid and the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League are still in the hunt for an OHL championship and also a trip to the Memorial Cup. McDavid and the Otters just recently swept the London Knights, and will play Justin Bailey and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the Conference Finals. McDavid currently leads the OHL in playoff scoring with 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in nine games played in the playoffs.

Once the Sabres know where they will pick, the NHL Draft Combine will take place at the HARBORCENTER starting May 31. There, we can get a gauge of who the Sabres may take with its second pick in the first round from the New York Islanders, and also who to take in the later rounds of a fairly deep draft.

Then on June 26, the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft will take place in Sunrise, Florida at the BB&T Center.

Tim Murray and the Pegulas have a plan, one that could change the complexion of the franchise for the long haul. In a time when the Sabres have had to suffer  in order to be successful, the front offices of the Sabres organization are set on trying to accelerate the rebuilding process and make this hockey team relevant once again. With the acquisition of players such as Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane, the established players such as Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson and Zemgus Girgensons, the emerging prospects such as Sam Reinhart, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste, and also the drafting of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, the era of suffering in Buffalo will hopefully come to an end once and for all.

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NHL Standings

TEAMGPRECPTS
Atlantic Division Leaders:
2014-6-028
1913-5-127
1911-6-224
Metropolitan Division Leaders:
1911-6-224
1810-6-222
199-7-321
Wild Card leaders:
1910-6-323
1910-6-323
-----------------------------------------
199-8-220
188-7-319
199-9-119
198-8-319
198-9-218
167-6-317
178-8-117
177-7-317
TEAMGPRECPTS
Central Division Leaders:
1913-5-127
1912-5-226
1811-5-224
Pacific Division Leaders:
2010-7-323
2110-9-222
1910-8-121
Wild Card leaders:
1910-7-222
199-6-422
-----------------------------------------
218-9-420
189-8-119
189-8-119
207-8-519
177-7-317
208-11-117
186-11-113
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