BUFFALO – Forty-five years ago, the Buffalo Sabres won the first overall pick with the spin of a wheel and chose Gilbert Perreault. The Vancouver Canucks settled for Dale Tallon. The Sabres got the better player and the Canucks got the better future GM. Of course, there was nothing preventing the Canucks from taking Darryl Sittler second overall in 1970.
But you get the point here. That one moment in time changed the course of history. And even though Perreault could never deliver a Stanley Cup to Buffalo, his Hall of Fame career gave the Sabres an identity and set them on a far better course.
Tonight’s game could be another one of those defining, franchise game-changing moments for the Sabres. Just as it could be for the Arizona Coyotes. All they have to do is lose tonight, then lose again in four days when the teams meet in the desert. It’s the only two times these teams meet this season and – wouldn’t you know it? – they play each other twice down the stretch with one of two generational talents on the line.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that anyone involved with the on-ice product with either the Sabres or Coyotes has any interest in tanking, even if it means doing so could change the course of history. Or as Coyotes coach Dave Tippett put it after the morning skate Thursday: “That won’t happen in their dressing room and that won’t happen in our dressing room. That’s an ownership and management thing. That’s not a coach thing. That’s not a player thing. There’s not one player who ever played a game thinking about a draft pick.”
The Coyotes come into this game five points ahead of the Sabres in the standings, but have far more to lose by missing out on either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel than the Sabres do. That’s because the Sabres are owned by a billionaire in an established market and they aren’t going anywhere. The Coyotes, though, are in a life-and-death battle for survival.
And it’s not the least bit of a stretch to suggest that this team’s existence could hang in the balance here. Think back to 1984. There have been suggestions that the Pittsburgh Penguins threw games late in the season to get the chance to draft Mario Lemieux. And it was the best thing that could have happened for the franchise. Because if Lemieux does not go No. 1 to the Penguins that year, not only do the Penguins not win two Stanley Cups, they don’t even exist in Pittsburgh. And the spot where the Consol Energy Center stands today would probably be a vacant parking lot.
The Coyotes are on the precipice of something great and something disastrous at the same time. The team has a clause that will allow it to relocate in 2018 if cumulative losses reach $50 million and those losses are at $34.4 million already. Las Vegas is just waiting as a landing spot. On the ice, though, they’re a young team with a good nucleus and top-end talent in the form of Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Christian Dvorak on the way. They have four first-round and three second-round picks in the next two drafts.
One way to get people excited about this team is to have either McDavid or Eichel in the lineup and the only way the Coyotes can guarantee that happening is to finish last. But more than that, one of those players would energize the market in a way that Noah Hanifin or Dylan Strome,as good as they are as players, could not. And then what if the Coyotes continue to struggle and get their hands on Auston Matthews, a phenom who just happens to be a local kid, in 2016?
Suddenly, you’re really onto something. Combining those players with the prospects and future draft picks could put the Coyotes into contention for a Stanley Cup in a few years. And if an infusion of that kind of young talent can’t entice the fan base to get invested in the team, at least the Coyotes will know they really are in a market where hockey will never, ever succeed and they can leave with a clear conscience.
It will be interesting to see how the crowd reacts tonight. In the Buffalo News, a Sabres fan was quoted as saying, “it’s going to be a ‘golf clap’ when the Sabres score.’ “
The Sabres are in a difficult spot, too. They made the decision to start Matt Hackett in goal. He has an .893 save percentage, while Anders Lindback has a .926 save percentage. But there’s also the added complication that the Sabres have to get Hackett into at least five of their final nine games or risk losing him as an unrestricted free agent. And, to their credit, they also activated defenseman Zach Bogosian and winger Patrick Kaleta off the injury list.
Sabres coach Ted Nolan said GM Tim Murray has some input into personnel deployment decisions, Hackett stopped 40 shots in a loss to Nashville last week. “We’ve played a lot of games lately where the No. 1 didn’t play against us and I’ve never questioned anybody else. And I don’t think anyone should ask about who we play against somebody else. Hackett is in a contract situation, so we have to take that into consideration.”
Nolan has had to answer questions about tanking all season and it’s clearly beginning to wear on him. And he brings up a very good point. The Sabres did not set out to be this bad this season, regardless of what kind of player is available in the draft.
“If you’re not good enough to win, you’re not good enough to win,” Nolan said. “But not given your effort to win is a different thing. And these guys have never done otherwise since I’ve been here.”