(Photo Courtesy of Sabres Hockey Central)
The 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres season is almost at the halfway point and whatever may come our way in the next 45 games, I love watching my team play hockey again.
After having my soul suffocated by the previous 6-7 years of Sabres hockey, please allow me the embarrassing admission that my heart goes pitter-patter every time Jack Eichel touches the puck. His speed is as good as advertised, his creativity hasn’t been seen in these parts since Pat Lafontaine, and he seems to be a good guy that fits in perfectly here in Buffalo. Thinking about where his current skill set might be once he becomes more acclimated to the demands of a full NHL season makes me a little lightheaded.
After watching the likes of Pominville and Ott make a sad joke of the Sabres captaincy, we finally have Chris Drury 2.0. No knock on Brian Gionta, he has served this team honorably during some very dark days, but Ryan O’Reilly appears to be the maniacal, obsessive, skilled leader that is an essential component of any team harboring ambitions to win a Stanley Cup.
The majority of the remaining roster is filled with bright spots. Ristolainen shows signs of being our Hedman; Kane is a textbook big guy that likes to hit people and score; Reinhart, Pysyk, and McCabe all look like strong contributors in the not-so-distant future.
Yet for all the fun and excitement this team has generated in Sabreland this season, there is an ugly and beautiful truth that no one seems to want to speak about too much. As I write this, Buffalo is currently in 29th place in the NHL, a mere single point out of last place. If the lottery were held today, the Sabres would have an 13.5% shot at landing Auston Matthews, a guy many believe might have been taken right before or after Jack Eichel in last year’s draft.
The riches available in the 2016 NHL Draft stretch beyond just Matthews. Even a casual viewer of the 2016 World Juniors can see that there is some outstanding talent on the ice in almost every game. The number of “elite” level players in the 2016 draft is believed to be five deep. Oddly, any of the four elite prospects ranked behind Matthews might be a better fit for the Sabres as they are currently constructed.
Jakob Chychrun is currently ranked second behind Matthews on most scouting projections. He’s a big, strong, NHL ready kid with high level speed that projects to be a #1 defenseman. Try to avoid salivating as you imagine Chychrun eating up 25 minutes per game against an opponent’s top lines next to Ristolainen for the next 8-10 years.
Three wingers slot in behind the top two prospects. Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine are big, physical Finns who are currently giving dominant performances in the World Juniors with a combined 11 goals and 15 assists. Keith Tkachuk’s son, Matthew, is having an outstanding World Juniors after tearing up the OHL with 59 points in 29 games this season. Ovechkin, Perry, and Barkov are comparables that have been tossed around in describing these three wingers, but even if a more accurate comparable is a guy like Detroit’s Dylan Larkin, any of the three would fill a huge need on the Sabres roster.
Indulge me in one brief trip into Sabres Fantasyland and think for a second about the added flexibility Tim Murray would have after stepping to the podium in First Niagara Center this June and drafting one of these five players. The addition of a winger like Puljujarvi or Tkachuk would have to make Murray feel more comfortable in trading away current players or prospects for players he believes stand a better chance of bringing a Stanley Cup to Buffalo. If trading JT Compher, a 31st pick, and two underperforming head cases can net the Sabres Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn, what could Murray get in return for players like Ennis, Reinhart, or a prospect like Hudson Fasching?
This is no clarion call to initiate Operation Tank II. Mike Harrington and any other member of the Distinguished Order of Ethical Hockey Fingerwaggers can rest easy. I want the Sabres to win every single remaining game this year because I can’t wait to see my beloved hockey team get back to the playoffs on the backs of guys like O’Reilly, Eichel, and Ristolainen. More wins this year brings all of us closer to that dream.
But hard fought losses bring us closer to a different dream, a dream that sees a good young Sabres team developing, battling through adversity, and winding up with the opportunity to add one more elite level prospect to their roster.
This isn’t like last year or the year before. Over the previous two seasons, watching the Sabres lose games felt a lot like winning. Next year, even hard fought losses will rightfully be met with concerns and disappointment. This season is different, a rare year in which winning and losing is all good. As long as the Sabres continue to demonstrate noticeable and sustainable growth on the ice, both wins and losses get us to the same place.