(Photo Courtesy of Kevin Hoffman – USA Today Sports)
Count me among the small group of dewy-eyed hockey fans who earnestly believed there was a good chance the Sabres would make a gigantic leap into the playoffs this year. With two months left in the regular season and Buffalo currently given a .5% chance to make the playoffs on SportsClubStats.com, this might be a good time to acknowledge that those expectations might have been a little too optimistic.
It seemed like such a simple equation back in September. Subtract a bunch of bad players from the team, add a significant number of very good players, toss in a coach with a proven ability to nurture elite young players, and the end sum would be a Sabres team that surprised everyone and snuck into the final Wild Card spot in the standings. Alas, the success of a hockey team is rarely tied to simple equations. Lesson learned.
There are a number of lessons to take away from this season, but perhaps none is more important than the recognition that dynastic teams rarely get great as fast as their fans would like.
When I watch the Sabres play these days, I often find myself thinking of something Michael Schur, the co-creator of shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, has said about building a successful half-hour television comedy. Schur believes that it takes at least 8-10 episodes for a show to hit its stride and become viewable television. He contends that in a kinder and more just television universe, the pilot episode of a show would actually be the tenth episode the cast and crew film together because it takes at least that long for the writers, cast and crew to build trust with each other and figure out how all the moving parts of their show are supposed to work.
(Side note: Schur is absolutely right about this. Go back and view the first few episodes of your favorite comedies and you’ll be shocked at how radically different they are from the rest of the series.)
If we apply the “Theory of 10 Episodes” to our favorite hockey team, this version of the Buffalo Sabres is currently filming their third or fourth episode. The season began with an enormous amount of excitement among players and coaches but very little chemistry and trust. In the preseason, Dan Bylsma was drooling over the potential of a speedy grouping of Kane, Eichel and Ennis. Fans were drooling over the prospect of Zemgus Girgensons as a third-line center who could score. Absolutely no one, not even Sam Reinhart’s mom, was drooling over the idea of Reinhart playing first-line minutes. Looking back, an enormous amount of saliva was expelled over views that turned out to be misguided.
Yet for all those misguided views, we are slowly but surely figuring out how the moving parts of this show are supposed to work. Rasmus Ristolainen is a monster top-pair defenseman that continues to improve; pay him now, pay him a lot, and pay him for a very long time. Eichel is a future superstar in the league, but finding a winger who can keep up with his speed and vision is proving to be problematic. As long as he doesn’t spontaneously combust while doing his customary 17,000 pregame sit-ups, Ryan O’Reilly is clearly the future captain of the team. This season is all about trial and error, confirmations and surprises, short-term regression in service to long-term growth.
One of the most challenging parts of being a Sabres fan during the current season is avoiding the temptation to view the season through a short-term prism. Jamie McGinn passes the 10-goal mark and I find myself entertaining the idea of throwing lots of money at him prior to the trade deadline. A five-game losing streak rears it ugly head and visions of Auston Matthews suddenly start dancing around in my head.
Repeat after me, oh fellow fanatical devotees of the crossed swords and buffalo: this is a long, long journey.
Here’s hoping it will be a fun journey filled with big and small steps toward becoming an excellent team over the long term, but we’re less than halfway to the point where the Sabres will become the NHL equivalent of viewable television.