TORONTO — Mike Babcock was probably not trying to be insulting. It just came out that way.
As the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach headed into Monday night’s game looking for a franchise-record 46th win of the season, Babcock was asked to reflect on how things have changed since taking over a team that finished dead last two years ago. At the same time, he was asked if there are any comparisons to what Buffalo Sabres’ first-year head coach Phil Housley is going through this season.
“Not all,” Babcock said. “It’s not even close. They have way more pieces.”
Toronto’s All-Star Game representative in 2015-16 was Leo Komarov. The Leafs, who had traded Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, had not yet drafted Auston Matthews, while William Nylander was playing in the minors and Mitch Marner was still in junior. There was a reason Toronto was so bad that season.
The last-place Sabres had a core group that season that included rookie Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart. For Buffalo, there really isn’t any excuse for the lack of progress in the same amount of time. The 2015-16 Sabres recorded 81 points, nowhere near a playoff spot but 12 points better than the Leafs. The 2017-18 Sabres have 58 points in 75 games and appear destined to finish last overall in the NHL, the same place they finished in 2014-15 to land in the middle of the Connor McDavid-Eichel sweepstakes.
“We got the pieces, for sure. The pieces have been here for a little while though,” said veteran forward Jason Pominville, who signed with the Sabres last summer and played in Buffalo from 2003-13. “That’s the tough part about it. We have to start making steps. Sometimes when you’re used to not winning, you get accustomed to it and you kind of accept it. That can’t be the way it is, because some of the guys that have been here for three, four years are used to losing. It’s unacceptable.”
On Monday, the Sabres received yet another piece to their ongoing puzzle, as forward Casey Mittelstadt decided to leave college after one year and sign an entry-level contract. Regarded as the best player currently not in the NHL, the eighth-overall pick in last year’s draft is expected to join the team later this week.
“It’s part of the future,” Sabres centre Jack Eichel said. “Anytime you sign good players like that, you hope they make the team better.”
He can’t make them any worse.
While this is the first season under Housley and general manager Jason Botterill, it is the seventh straight season in which Buffalo will miss the playoffs. During that span, the team has burned through two general managers, four head coaches, and finished last in the conference three times.
And yet, Buffalo is no better today than it was three years ago when the Sabres tanked for a chance to draft McDavid in what was supposed to be the beginning of the rebuild that has gone on for far too long.
“It’s not going to last forever,” Leafs forward Nazem Kadri said. “They just got to kind of deal with it now. They’ve got some good players over there and they’re going to be up-and-coming eventually.”
Winning the No. 1 overall pick and selecting prized defenceman Rasmus Dahlin in this year’s draft would certainly help. But for a team that has had five top-10 draft picks in the last five years — but only one player drafted outside the first round who has reached the 100-game mark since 2010 — a lottery pick is not going to fix this mess.
Buffalo needs a No. 1 goalie and a No. 1 defenceman, as well someone to replace Evander Kane on the left side. They need to find players like the Leafs’ Zach Hyman and Connor Brown, as well as a Travis Dermott and a Nikita Zaitsev — depth players that can play up and down in the lineup.
“We’re definitely a long way from where we need to be,” Pominville said, “but then you look at Colorado and where they are now from where they were last year. It can change pretty fast. The pieces are there, so hopefully we can take that step.”
Indeed, the cupboard is not as bare as it used to be.
Even if the Sabres miss out on Dahlin, finishing last overall means that they will be in a position to draft an impact forward such as Andrei Svechnikov, Filip Zadina or Brady Tkachuk.
According to The Hockey News’ Future Watch magazine, the Sabres have five players ranked among the top 100 prospects, including Mittelstadt (No. 1) and Alex Nylander (No. 13). In Eichel, the team appears to have its version of Auston Matthews, while it’s not unrealistic to think that Mittelstadt and Nylander could turn out to be as good as Marner and William Nylander.
If Botterill can upgrade the team in net — pending unrestricted free agent Carter Hutton, who has a league-best goals-against average and save percentage in a backup role with the St. Louis Blues, could be an option — and the Sabres can develop prospects such as Rasmus Asplund, Marcus Davidsson and Will Borgen into regular NHLers, the Sabres could be next year’s version of Colorado or New Jersey.
At the very least, the players finally have a reason to be hopeful.
“I’m here for a long time and I’m pretty invested in this team and this organization, so obviously you want to see the future and for things to get better,” Eichel said. “I think it starts with me. I’ve got to be better and all the guys in the room have to take it upon ourselves to change this thing.”
This season might be over, but the Sabres should get a glimpse of what next year will bring with the addition of Mittelstadt. The 19-year-old forward is expected to make his NHL debut on Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings.
“He’ll see another level of speed, for sure,” Housley said of Mittelstadt, who spent one season at the University of Minnesota. “But he plays the game at a high-speed level and great hockey sense and IQ for the game. And his creativity is where he creates separation.”
Mittelstadt had 11 goals and 30 points in 34 games for the Golden Gophers, but it was his MVP performance at this year’s world junior tournament in Buffalo, where he led the tournament with 11 points in seven games for the U.S., that caused the most attention.
“Honestly, it gets me excited as a player to get a guy like that,” Pominville said. “We all saw him play at the world juniors. I was pretty pumped to find out he was on our side. I can’t imagine what the fans are going to be like.”
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