Winning the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes Still Wouldn’t Save the Buffalo Sabres


The 2014-15 Buffalo Sabres are a bad hockey club. More breaking news to follow.

They are 1-6-0 and with road games this week with the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, 1-8-0 is practically an inevitability. With a 38.5 percent Fenwick close and a PDO of exactly 100, there’s a terrific chance that the Sabres of the moment will be the Sabres of the next 75 games. A second consecutive historically bad season is on the horizon.

The good news: At the end of this rainbow comprised of sadness, shame and frustration is Connor McDavid, a generational talent who has drawn comparisons with Sidney Crosby.

The bad news: The Sabres might be so beyond help that the arrival of McDavid won’t offer the instantaneous turnaround that occurred with Crosby and the Penguins.

(Of course, the draft lottery could result in the Sabres picking second, thus losing out on McDavid, but let’s say the Sabres catch at least one break this season.)

Let’s assume McDavid is the equal of Crosby, which is a big assumption considering Crosby is the best player in the world by a mile. In Crosby’s final two seasons of junior in the QMJHL, he led the league in scoring with 135 points in 59 games in 2003-04, then posted a league-best 168 points (102 assists) in 62 games the following season.

McDavid finished fourth in the OHL with 99 points in 56 games last season; with nine goals and 29 points in 10 games this season, he’s on pace for an astronomical 197 points in 68 games.

McDavid is a game-changer, a player for which tanking should be mandatory for the likes of the Sabres. If the Sabres offered fans a chance to play goaltender for a period in all home games this season in an effort to facilitate landing McDavid, I don’t know if anyone could blame them. At least then they’d be honest about their tanking.

The question with McDavid is, just how much game-changing could he do with the Sabres?

Consider the arrival of Crosby to the Penguins in 2005-06. The 2003-04 club finished dead-last with 58 points, which seems like an attainable number for this year’s Sabres. Crosby posted 39 goals and 102 points in his rookie season, helping the Penguins attain 58 points in the standings for the second season in a row.

Three years later, Crosby and the Penguins won a Stanley Cup in 2009. All three seasons featured playoff berths, with the final two seasons including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008.

Within four years of Crosby’s arrival in the NHL, the Penguins went to two Stanley Cup Finals, winning one of them.

Despite the greatness of McDavid, it seems far-fetched to think the same thing can happen with the Sabres.

Crosby’s first season will probably look a lot like McDavid‘s presumptuous first one in Buffalo. Crosby led the Penguins in goals his rookie season with 39 and was followed by 37-year-old Mark Recchi (24), 36-year-old John LeClair (22) and 26-year-old Ryan Malone (22).

Recchi, LeClair and Malone have a real Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson and Drew Stafford feel to them, don’t they?

Everything began to change for the Penguins in Crosby’s second season, which coincided with the first seasons of Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Malkin was in the Penguins’ system before Crosby, as he was taken in the 2004 draft, while Staal was the result of the Penguins failing to improve during Crosby’s rookie season.

It also helped to have selected Marc-Andre Fleury, who was years from falling off the cliff and becoming the goaltender he is today, with the first pick in the 2003 draft.

Crosby is the face of the NHL and will always get more credit and blame than he does for successes and failures, but the Penguins had a good thing going before and after Crosby’s arrival. That aided them into becoming the perennial force they are today.

What do the Sabres have?

They certainly don’t have their own Fleury. They have 26-year-olds Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth, who boast career save percentages of .911 and .913, respectively. If the Sabres are following the Penguins’ plan of drafting a star and raising a Cup four years later, it won’t be either of these goaltenders doing the Cup lifting.

In the system, the Sabres have sixth-round picks Nathan Lieuwen and Linus Ullmark, the undrafted Andrey Makarov, fifth-round pick Calvin Petersen and third-round pick Jonas Johansson. Based on pedigree and age, the 19-year-old Johansson might the team’s goaltender if and when things turn around in Buffalo, but that’s a 105-point font-sized if.

The Sabres also don’t have their version of Malkin floating around their system. While the Penguins were using Crosby-Malkin-Staal down the middle, the Sabres potential version of McDavid-Sam Reinhart-Mikhail Grigorenko wouldn’t be anywhere close to that.

The Sabres have the top-ranked prospect pool, according to HockeysFuture, but they don’t have the game-changers the Penguins had a decade ago.

If the rumors are true and the Sabres deal defenseman Tyler Myers, they will be so far behind where the Penguins were in terms of talent when they drafted Crosby that the time for imagining a similar rebirth in Buffalo should be brought to an end.

The one thing the Sabres have going for them is three first-round and three second-round picks in the 2015 draft. That means what they do after they theoretically select McDavid will decide their immediate and long-term success just as much as McDavid. With the foundation of Reinhart, three second-round picks and two third-round picks in the 2014 draft, the Sabres are set up more for the John Tavares method of rebuilding. 

The Isles took Tavares with the No. 1 pick in 2009 but also selected defenseman Calvin de Haan with the  12th pick. They grabbed Casey Cizikas and Anders Lee, two players who will contribute this season, in the fourth and sixth round, respectively.

But it was the previous season that mattered just as much to the Islanders becoming a playoff team in 2013 and perhaps again in 2015, as they took forward Josh Bailey in the first round and defenseman Travis Hamonic in the second round. The Islanders didn’t exactly hit on a lot of their 13 picks in 2008, but they did enough to help foster a turnaround in the coming years.

That’s the path that seems to make the most sense for the Sabres, who won’t know for a few years how they did with their nine picks in 2014. If time reveals the Sabres did only a slightly better job than the Islanders in 2008, maybe they can be regular playoff participants by 2018.

That probably seems depressing, especially considering all the McDavid/Crosby hype and comparisons. But it’s probably for the best for Sabres fans to expect a gradual return to respectability along the lines of Tavares than it is to expect to be an instant, dominant squad like the Penguins became with Crosby.


All statistics via

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

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