It’s been 15 years to the day that the most infamous game in Buffalo Sabres history began: On June 19, 1999, the franchise squared off in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final – and when it ended in controversy and anguish in the wee hours of the next morning, with Brett Hull’s foot, the rest of him, and his Dallas Stars teammates celebrating their championship on the ice of the then-named Marine Midland Arena (now known as the First Niagara Center), Buffalo fans might have believed they were at their nadir.
Unfortunately for the Sabres, the next decade-and-a-half hasn’t been much better. Sure, they enjoyed a brief resurgence after the 2005 lost lockout season, making two appearances in the Eastern Conference Final. However, in fourteen seasons after playing in the 1999 Cup Final, Buffalo missed the playoffs eight times and made it out of the first round on just three occasions. More often than not, the biggest news coming out of the organization has been about playersleaving, ownership changes and management blunders.
That’s the bad news. The good news? Virtually all the circumstances that went on to affect the Sabres in that time have changed. Consequently, the next fifteen years are likely to be much better to Sabres fans. And I mean much better.
Fifteen years ago, the NHL had no salary cap and small-market teams such as the Sabres never could compete with the league’s big-money franchises; now, the cap allows them a level playing field. Fifteen years ago, questions abounded about the franchise’s future in Western New York; now, billionaire Terry Pegula is firmly ensconced as team owner and has the financial wherewithal to spend to the cap ceiling each and every season.
Fifteen years ago, the Sabres had all sorts of pressure to follow up their Cup Final appearance by contending immediately; now, after new GM Tim Murray cleared the team’s financial decks by trading most of their veteran core last season, there’s nowhere for them to go but up. And, most importantly, where fifteen years ago they had no true superstar around which to build, they’re almost assured of landing one – if not at the 2014 draft (where they've got the second overall selection), then certainly next summer, when they’ll have three first round picks (their own, the Islanders’ and Blues’) and when phenoms Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will be available.
This isn’t to say there won’t be more bumps in the road ahead for the Sabres. A young squad is assured of painful learning curves and until the Sabres turn the corner in terms of wins and losses – which isn't going to happen next season – Murray won’t be able to build up a collection of helpful veterans via free agency. Internal improvement is an absolute must.
Still, the horizon in Buffalo looks as sunny as it’s ever been. Sabres fans may not have to worry about another blown call in the Cup Final breaking their hearts over the course of the next couple years – but the conditions are ripe for them to eventually have a team that makes Hull’s goal a footnote far easier to forget.