Buffalo Sabres: Why the ‘Pittsburgh Model’ Is Not the 1 for Them


It’s no secret: The Buffalo Sabres have a lot of work to do to become a Stanley Cup contender.

There is no one way for the Sabres to reach their goal of the Stanley Cup, but there have been plenty of teams that have turned it around from perennial lottery pick to perennial contender.

An examination of recent history allows two teams to stand out in this regard: the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Chicago went from drafting first overall in 2007 to a Stanley Cup in 2010. It won again in 2013 and is in a great position to raise another banner this year.

The Blackhawks built their team by utilizing all avenues available to them. Yes, two of their biggest stars, Jonathan Toews (third overall in 2006) and Patrick Kane (first overall in 2007) came via high lottery picks, but they have found stars and solid role players in other ways.

Duncan Keith, a yearly Norris Trophy candidate, was drafted in the second round (54th overall in 2002), as was budding star Brandon Saad (43rd overall in 2011). Patrick Sharp came over in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. Marian Hossa was a coveted free agent when he signed long-term with the Hawks. 

The core of these Blackhawks has been built over time and in various ways.

The other example many have talked about is that of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

For the Penguins, everyone points to the selection of Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005 as the beginning of their turnaround, but not even Sid could get the hapless Pens out of the basement during the 2005-06 season

But Crosby wasn’t the only high-end prospect on the team.

From 2002-2006, the Pens picked no lower than fifth (2002), and picked first and second twice. That stretch netted them Ryan Whitney (fifth overall in 2002), Marc-Andre Fleury (first overall in 2003), Evgeni Malkin (second overall in 2004), Crosby, and Jordan Staal (second overall in 2006). 

To put it simply: The Pens were rewarded for their struggles.

That core, coupled with some experienced veterans, brought the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh in 2009. The Pens have not ended a season─not including a lockout-shortened 2013─with fewer than 99 points since 2005-06.

However, all is far from well in Pittsburgh.

Following the team’s disappointing second-round loss to the New York Rangers, Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that Pittsburgh’s owners were likely to fire coach Dan Bylsma in the coming days. General manager Ray Shero has already been relieved of his duties

How did this happen to a team that seems to be in the top tier year after year?

The answer may lie in a Brian Burke press conference from two seasons ago when he was still the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

In that interview, Burke was asked to comment on the “Pittsburgh model” for rebuilding a team.

“What’s the Pittsburgh model? They [won] a lottery…and got the best player in the game. Is that available to me? Should we do that? Pittsburgh model my ass,” he said.

Burke’s words could not ring truer. 

Beyond the guys they have picked at the top or the guys who have come from the trades they made with said top picks, the Pens have not done well in free agency, the draft or the trade market.

Kris Letang and Paul Martin are far from cornerstone defensemen, James Neal can’t stay on the ice, be it due to injuries or suspensions, Beau Bennett is their best forward prospect by a long shot and even Fleury can’t stop a beach ball in the playoffs.

This is the trap the Sabres cannot fall into.

Sabres GM Tim Murray is going to be busy in the next two drafts, especially scouting the top players. The second overall pick is a given this year, and next year looks like it will result in a similar outcome. Sitting back and thinking that will be enough is a grave mistake.

Sure, the potential of having Connor McDavid, who has been favorably compared to Crosby by Sportsnet, would instantly make the Sabres a much better team. However, to have him join the second pick this year and surround them with marginal talent is not going to bring a Cup to town.

Crosby and Malkin were able to push through when they had a stable full of role players supporting them, including younger players like Staal and Letang, and veterans like Bill Guerin, Sergei Gonchar and Petr Sykora.

The Sabres need a lot more than just two high-end talents in the draft to make them a Stanley Cup contender year in and year out.

It should be acknowledged that the Sabres have built a strong prospect pipeline without the next two drafts, recently taking the top spot in Hockey’s Future’s rankings. This is an advantage many teams in the same position do not have.

However, the purported Pittsburgh model is now shown to not only have its drawbacks, but to be a GM killer as well. Murray should feel great that he will be able to bring in a top-two talent this June, and potentially next June as well, but he has to ensure that he surrounds those players with talent as well.

Instead of the Pittsburgh model, he needs to take a good, long look at the Blackhawks over the rest of the postseason.


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