Sullivan: Same dreadful story, even as Sabres turn a page

Jerry Sullivan

When you’re a long-suffering Sabres fan, doomed to rooting for the worst organization in major professional sports, you learn to celebrate the small victories.

Don Granato gets a bunch of quitters to actually play hard as an interim head coach, leading them to a heroic 9-16-3 finish, and people exult when he gets the real gig.

So what if the Sabres finished dead last in the NHL for the fourth time in eight seasons? Or that hiring Granato made it convenient to forget that the Pegulas had no intention of throwing a big contract at a proven head man. Or that the man who hired him, Kevyn Adams, had no credentials as a general manager when they handed Adams the job.

Hey, expectations are suitably modest in Buffalo. Set them low and you can see hope on the distant horizon, even when history tells you they can always get worse. Granato gets production out of some talented young players and looks like the next Scotty Bowman.

Let’s face it, Ralph Krueger was the real problem with this sorry bunch, just like Phil Housley, Dan Bylsma and Ted Nolan before him. It couldn't possibly be the dysfunctional management of the Pegulas, or underachieving high picks like Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin.

Well, there’s more good news. The Sabres announced that they weren’t raising prices for season ticket holders for the 2021-22 season. Granted, prices went up 2.5% last season, when fans were allowed to attend only four games at KeyBank Center due to COVID-19.

Still, why quibble about the details, when we’re emphasizing the miniature joys of being a hockey fan in Western New York?

The happiest news of all, though, is that Jeff Skinner has waived his no-movement clause. That means the Sabres can expose Skinner and the last six years of his eight-year, $72 million contract to in the upcoming expansion draft, allowing them to protect another player.

It would be even nicer if the Kraken actually wanted to take Skinner off the Sabres’ hands, giving them $9 million of space on their salary cap. The chances of that are remote. The guy has 21 goals and 16 assists in 112 games since signing the contract after scoring 40 goals in 2018-19.

The analytics crowd reminds us that Skinner had good “shot quality” five-on-five. I’d prefer a little production, say, more than one assist every seven games. But I guess that was Krueger’s fault. Let’s see if his old bosses running the show in Seattle — Ron Francis and Jason Botterill — will buy in on one of the NHL’s most overrated players.

But it will allow the Sabres to protect someone they might otherwise expose to the draft, maybe Rasmus Asplund or Tage Thompson. Evidently, it would be an embarrassment to the Pegulas if Thompson, the last remaining asset from the Ryan O’Reilly deal, were left unprotected.

Yeah, as if the O’Reilly trade could possibly provide any more embarrassment to the Sabres.

Among other things, the O’Reilly deal forced the Sabres’ hand on Skinner. Even the smart hockey minds in town felt they “had to sign” Skinner, because it’s hard to replace 40-goal scorers and the lingering embarrassment of O’Reilly winning the Cup in St. Louis was still in the air.

This is no second-guess. I wrote in this space two years ago that signing Skinner was folly, and that Botterill would give him the contract “to avoid the humiliation of having traded assets for Skinner and having him walk in free agency after one losing season.”

Skinner knows very little but losing, of course. He holds the record for most games played in an NHL career (773) without making the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Sabres will set a record for most consecutive seasons missing the playoffs (11) if they don’t make it in ’21-22.

And you wonder why players want to get the heck out of town. Rasmus Ristolainen (542) and Reinhart (454) are also top 10 all-time in NHL games without sniffing the playoffs. Eichel is moving up the list with 375 games.

What a sorry state of affairs. One guy waives his no-movement clause, but there’s little chance he’s leaving. Meanwhile, the Sabres have to protect two former No. 2 overall picks who haven’t won a thing in Buffalo and don’t want to play here any longer — Eichel and Reinhart.

It’s become a place where anyone with experience and clout wants to leave. That includes Ristolainen, who should have been shipped out of town years ago. Risto apologists say the Sabres need him because he’s their lone physical presence on the blue line. That would be fine, if he weren’t such a dreadful defensive player.

The protection lists are due to the NHL at 5 p.m. today. A league-wide trade freeze starts, too. There was hope that the Sabres might work out a trade with the Kraken, but Seattle has no assets to give in return at this point.

So the wait continues. Fans seem resigned to the fact that Eichel’s time in Buffalo is done. Reinhart, too. They’ll try to see the bright side of things, as they did when the Sabres were losing on purpose to get Eichel or Connor McDavid in the draft.

Buffalo sports fans have an infinite capacity for belief, even when it seems they’ve been taken for a ride. They’ll seize on any sliver of hope — a young center, an emerging defenseman, a coach who doesn’t suffocate his players and lets them go, even if the defense stinks.

Maybe they’ll clean house and set the record for a playoff drought, then figure things out and become a real contender. Maybe this collection of kids will come of age together, like the Ryan Miller/Jason Pominville/Tomas Vanek group did about 15 years ago.

It worked with the Bills, right? It’s become a cliche to ask how the Pegulas could get it right with the Bills and not the Sabres, as if that were some consolation for seeing them mismanage their beloved hockey team so badly.

The Sabres are a dysfunctional mess. A cynic would say they’re worse off than after the tank. So you find the little things. I can hear the happy talk now, about this Sabres team as fresh and innocent, a new cause for hope.

Whatever gets you through the season, folks.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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