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The trouble with tanking for the Buffalo Sabres

There is a downside to tanking, the recent NHL phenomenon of finishing last accidentally on purpose in hopes of drafting a future superstar, and the Buffalo Sabres are the prime example.

Almost three years after an obvious tank job in the 2014-15 season aimed at landing Connor McDavid went awry when the Sabres lost the draft lottery to the Edmonton Oilers, the team remains stuck among the detritus of the National Hockey League. While the Sabres did manage to go into their five-day break on a rare positive note with a 3-1 win on Thursday over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the week leading up to it was hardly uplifting.

After the Sabres lost their fifth game in a row on Tuesday, 7-4 to the Winnipeg Jets, rookie head coach Phil Housley said too many of his players were selfish. One day later, defenceman Justin Falk and forward Evander Kane (no stranger to controversy) engaged in a heated physical confrontation at practice, with Falk calling Kane selfish among other things.

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When Housley was asked why he thought there was a lack of respect for defence and urgency on his team, the coach said, "Because I think there is a lot of cheat in our game. They think points are more important than playing solid defence. You can see the results that are coming.

"The one thing that really irritates me is we've got really good fans coming to the game. If there's something for our guys to play for, let's play for them. They're coming here and spending their hard-earned money. We have to be better at home. We have 23 games left on home ice and we have to give our fans more to cheer about. We have to have more urgency in our game."

It was the sound of a coach surrounded by a culture of losing, one that took hold well before both Housley and rookie general manager Jason Botterill arrived last summer. And someone who can see the growing numbers of empty seats at the Sabres arena as the fans go from anger to the worst attitude for a team – indifference.

Those around the team suspect the tanking did not start with the effort to get McDavid, which resulted in settling for the No. 2 overall selection in the 2015 NHL entry draft. That produced forward Jack Eichel, who has played well enough at time but still lags well behind the other two big catches in recent drafts, McDavid and Auston Matthews, who went to the tanking Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016.

There is a suspicion the 2013-14 season, in which the Sabres also finished last over all, was another effort to get the first overall draft pick. But former GM Tim Murray, who also presided over the Eichel selection and was fired along with head coach Dan Bylsma at the end of last season, saw the first pick go to the Florida Panthers, who took rising defenceman Aaron Ekblad. Murray picked forward Sam Reinhart, who finally showed a little promise last season with 47 points, but fell off the map so far this season with 13 points in 44 games.

The Sabres went into their break on Friday with an 11-24-9 record and 31 points. They are once again in contention for the first pick in the draft as they sit 30th over all, five points ahead of the last-place Arizona Coyotes.

But this time it is hardly intentional.

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Despite the fact Botterill and Housley were both first-timers in their jobs, the Sabres were expected to take a step forward this season.

However, with only Eichel (41 points) and Kane (36 points) producing consistently, the Sabres can't score enough to overcome their eye-popping minus-52 goal-differential.

There are a myriad of reasons for the continuing mess, many of them left behind by the Murray regime. Too many bad trades and bad contracts continue to dog the Sabres along with a losing atmosphere.

Ryan O'Reilly was supposed to provide scoring and leadership when he arrived in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche but has yet to play up to the $7.5-million (U.S.) cap hit he carries from a contract awarded by Murray. Also not playing up to their contracts are Kyle Okposo (24 points, $6-million cap hit), Jason Pominville (20 points, $5.6-million) and defencemen Rasmus Ristolainen ($5.4-million) and Marco Scandella ($4-million). Also on the books is a $5-million cap hit for Matt Moulson, who is in the minor leagues, and there were bad decisions such as making Robin Lehner the No. 1 goaltender. Three seasons into his stay in Buffalo, Lehner has only been good in flashes.

Ultimately, Botterill and Housley have to deal with a dressing room that has known nothing but losing for almost five years, thanks to chasing the No. 1 draft pick. As the Oilers, who are once again locked in a losing spiral after seemingly shaking it off last season, can testify, tanking is far from a guarantee of success. What it also does is expose young players to an atmosphere of losing, exacerbated by sour veteran players, which can end up in a toxic mix of resentment and entitlement, with the entitlement coming from those young players who know the team tried to work the system to get them.

This also means the real culprits for the Sabres' situation are the owners, Terry and Kim Pegula. It was their decisions that set the tone for the franchise.

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After they bought their first major-league professional team in 2011, the Pegulas made mistakes common to most new owners. They listened to the wrong people, in this case a group of executives with little NHL experience but with ties to Western Pennsylvania, where the Pegulas ran their business.

At one point, the Pegulas did appear to be on the right track. In November, 2013 they hired Pat LaFontaine, an icon in Buffalo from his playing days, as president. The plan was to form a three-pronged head office with LaFontaine, Murray and a third person to handle the salary cap and contracts.

But front-office politics, with Pegula's cronies working against LaFontaine, according to stories in the Buffalo News, saw LaFontaine pushed out of the organization after just three months. Also gone in short order was Ted Nolan, one of the most popular and successful coaches in team history. Then came Murray's sole reign and a series of mistakes. Most of those mistakes concerned bad contracts, which haunt teams for years in a salary-cap system.

Just when there will be any sustained success for the franchise remains uncertain. Kane, who is expected to be traded by the NHL's Feb. 26 trade deadline because he is headed for free-agency, acknowledged in the wake of his dust-up with Falk the problems run deep.

"Surprised? No," he said when asked if Housley's comments about cheating were a surprise. "When you have 10 wins halfway through the year something is going wrong. Nothing is really a surprise right now."

Batherson aims for simplicity in gold medal game at world juniors (The Canadian Press)
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