They say the term “empathy” is the feeling that describes putting yourself in the shoes of another and trying to see things their way.
But when it comes to fans of the Buffalo Sabres, how can you truly have empathy when they’re experiencing one of the worst win-droughts in modern professional sports history? How do you explain away year after year of letdowns, underwhelm and flat-out heartbreak?
As if the past decade weren’t abysmal enough – and lo, it certainly has been abysmal, with the Sabres failing to make the playoffs in any of the past 10 years; and with the team finishing either sixth, seventh or eighth in the Atlantic or East Division in each of the past eight straight seasons – imagine how it must feel knowing the upcoming, 2021-22 campaign is going to be sheer awfulness, from Game 1 likely through Game 82. Sabres GM Kevyn Adams already has dealt away one of his team’s better defenseman (Rasmus Ristolainen, traded to Philadelphia), lost his starting goaltender (Linus Ullmark, who signed with Bruins Atlantic rivals in Boston), and shipped out his top goal-scorer and point-getter (Sam Reinhart, again, to an Atlantic rival in the Florida Panthers) last season.
Now imagine that (gulp) this is only just the beginning of the pain.
The real agony, of course, will be when Adams finally finds a trade fit for captain and star center Jack Eichel, who has made no secret of his desire to wear a different uniform whenever he finishes rehabilitating a wonky neck. As usually happens with these types of deals, the franchise that acquires a talent like Eichel’s always winds up being seen as the winner, and this trade should be no different.
Even if Adams figures out a way to get a very high draft pick and/or prospects ready to make the NHL jump right away, the fact will remain that he’ll be dealing away the player who once, not so long ago at all, was seen as and marketed as “the future” in Buffalo.
And maybe that’s why the skepticism among Sabres fans is at an all-time peak: under present-day owners Terry and Kim Pegula, Buffalo supporters have heard the message “rebuilding takes time and patience” more than enough times to test anyone’s time and patience. Why should anyone believe they’re going to get it right this time, when so many promised roads to victory have resulted in so many awkward dead-ends?
The good people of Buffalo deserve better, but they’re not going to get better anytime soon. Will they be better than the rebuilding Detroit Red Wings this coming year? Very probably not. Will they be competitive when squaring off against the on-the-rise Ottawa Senators in 2021-22? Doubtful. Most likely, once again, is another last-place finish, another trip to the NHL draft lottery, and another set of hopes that likely will be crushed as another generation of fans tries to find hope with this organization.
Even with head coach Don Granato installed as their permanent bench boss, even with 2021 No. 1 draft pick Owen Power in their pipeline, and even with opportunities abounding for young players to step in and earn a full-time NHL job, the bottom line is there will be far more nights than not that the Sabres are going to be out of games, and be out of them early. To say their goaltending duo of veterans Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell is not the best in the league is to be charitable, and to say they believe they can somehow lock up a post-season berth is laughable.
And it’s likely going to be bad right from the first regular-season game. The Sabres’ schedule kicks off with a five-game homestand, but even then, three of those five games (against the Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, and Bruins) will be considered must-wins for their opponent; and the other two (against Arizona and New Jersey) also could be “gimmes” for the other side.
The Sabres then depart on a four-game West Coast road trip that includes showdowns against the three California teams (all of which are better on paper than Buffalo) as well as their first-ever game against the expansion Seattle Kraken. That showdown may be most painful of all, especially if the Kraken (who, like virtually every team in the league, are better on paper than Buffalo) ring up the score and show Buffalonians that, even a team in its first year of existence has been better-built-to-win than the Sabres.
Following that game, the Sabres get a “break” hosting the Red Wings, then finish off November with 11 games; only three games (including another tilt against Detroit, their first game of the year against the evolving Columbus Blue Jackets, and their first game hosting the Kraken) will be in the “clearly winnable” category for them.
It’s entirely possible they win a couple of those battles, but more likely, they’ll be losers of 15 or 16 of 22 games, and well on their way to ensuring the second half of the season will be the competitive no-man’s land it has been for them in so many years of late. By the second month of the year, then, they could be out of the playoff race; Christmas will not have come close to arriving, but for Sabres fans, the coal will be coming in Amazon Hyper-Prime, and nothing Power does when he returns to the American Collegiate level for the year will make that more palatable.
Will there be individual awards Sabres players contend for? Not at all likely. Will they try and get rid of their other veterans, with an eye toward post-season contention down the line? Probably, but nobody should expect trajectory-altering results from the trade market.
Once again, Buffalo is probably going to be two years away from being two years away from the playoffs. It will be a bowling-shoe ugly 2021-22 campaign for the Sabres, and nothing short of a miracle on ice (Copyright 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team) will prevent it.
So, empathy? Nope. No one can know now what it has meant to be a Sabres fan for the last decade and longer. The franchise has had blips of genuine Stanley Cup contention, but those days seem further away than ever now – and no single trade, or multiple moves, will bring them closer.