The fans of the Buffalo Sabres probably have no idea how difficult things were for the team in 1997. That was the year the team almost missed payroll for its players a few times, the year that Darcy Regier took over as general manager and the year that Regier forced head coach Ted Nolan to resign. When the Rigas family bought the team later that year, there were immediate improvements. The team went to the Stanley Cup Finals two years after the Rigas’ bought it and all looked bright. But when John Rigas and his family went to jail in 2002, the team fell into the hands of the league. In late 2002, the team went bankrupt. In early 2003, the team was rescued by billionaire B. Thomas Golisano.
Prior to Golisano taking over, the team would actively pursue free agents as well as build its farm system through the draft. But when Golisano took over the team, the days of signing high-priced free agents were over. The team lucked out when it got Danny Briere in a trade with the Phoenix Coyotes during the 2002-03 season, and it really got lucky when it got Chris Drury in a trade during the summer of 2003 with the Calgary Flames. But when it came time to pay those co-captains their big paychecks in 2007, the team opted to let the two stars leave. Fans were devastated and Darcy Regier was blamed. The reality was that Golisano did not want to sign those two players to huge contracts when he knew that Thomas Vanek‘s big payday was waiting in the wings.
With Golisano refusing to spend money on free agents, Regier was forced to build the team through the draft. He managed to find some gems, such as goaltender Ryan Miller, but the end result was an inconsistent team that could not win games.
When Terry Pegula held his now famous Feb. 18, 2011 press conference announcing that he bought the Sabres from Golisano, Pegula promised the fans that the pocketbook was open and the team would spend money to build a Cup contender. But with his unlimited budget, Darcy Regier made some of the worst free agent signings in team history. Regier also started bringing in draft picks that the team would mishandle and turn into busts.
As the Sabres face the second half of the 2013-14 season, a new general manager has taken over and Tim Murray has experience in building a winning hockey team. While working as the assistant general manager for the Ottawa Senators, Murray was there when general manager Bryan Murray used a solid combination of free agents and draft picks to build a team that consistently won hockey games. Now Tim Murray gets a chance to do the same thing in Buffalo.
Some of the fans in Buffalo are excited about the team being the worst in the league because they think that being the worst team means getting the first overall draft pick. The NHL is not the NFL in many ways, and deciding draft order is one of those ways. The NHL team with the worst record at the end of the regular season does not automatically get the first pick in the draft. The first pick in the NHL Draft is decided through a lottery system that could award the pick to any number of teams.
Buffalo sports fans are notorious for being impatient and irrational. In this case, the desire to build a championship team completely through the draft is irrational. A Stanley Cup winning team has good draft picks and experienced free agents. Tim Murray knows that, and so does Ted Nolan. Now if the Buffalo fans could just understand that then that would make the next two years of rebuilding a lot easier on everyone.