The Buffalo Sabres have an uneven history over their 50-year existence. GM Thomas Gidlow is ushering in a new era - one of expectation and hard work.
(Think of the above video as what you'd see sitting in a seat at KeyBank Center)
and MAJOR thanks to Wade Minter, the actual in-game announcer for the Carolina Hurricanes, for voicing the player introductions!
The hardest working team in hockey is back.
For the past 50 years of Buffalo Sabres hockey, there have been moments of glory - or close to them. 1975 against the Flyers, oh so close to the ultimate prize in the club's fifth season. 1997, when the club narrowly defeated the Senators after years of playoff disappointment. Again in 1999, when Buffalo made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose due to Brett Hull's...well, Buffalonian's know (and there's no need to revisit that...).
2006 and 2007, when Buffalo sported what many consider it's most skilled club. Oh so close, but not close enough.
And then came a decade of despair. True lows - like revolving ownership issues, threats of moving the team, and a playoff absence too long to count.
All of that may be changing, now. Finally.
It took the advent of a new league - BEARD Hockey. It took a full Dispersal Draft, where 32 teams divvied up over 1,300 players to 're-begin' their quests. It took an Entry Draft, where the Sabres took no less than 16 players. It took 18 trades (to date).
And it took a GM originally from western New York to return home.
But here we are. The future is now.
Thomas Gidlow, the new GM of the Sabres, has promised a return to the late 90's era mentality of bringing your lunch pail and hard hat to the rink on a daily basis. The moniker that grew from those teams - the aforementioned 'hardest working team' title - wasn't just a clever marketing ploy. It was an attitude, a culture-creating charge that said "we may not be the most talented, but no one is going to outwork us."
Time will tell if this sentiment will translate on the ice. But if the makeup of the 2020-21 Buffalo Sabres is any indication, they are well on their way.
The skill is up front for the Sabres forward unit. Led by Gabriel Landeskog and supported by veterans T.J. Oshie and William Karlsson (likely the club's top line combo), the top of the lineup is going to be counted on to provide the lion's share of the scoring.
There is plenty of secondary options, though. Carl Soderberg, Jake Virtanen, Frank Vatrano, and Miles Wood are solid complimentary pieces that can play up and down the lineup.
Youth will be served elsewhere, with young upstarts Martin Necas, Nolan Patrick, and Drake Batherson supported by wily veterans in Jordan Martinook and Frans Nielsen. William Carrier figures to be on the outside looking in, but can support the unit as a 13th forward capable of jumping in when the need arises.
The main takeaways from this group? Size, speed, and hitting. All 13 forwards on the Sabres projected roster are known for their ability to play the body. Only one of the forwards (Vatrano) is below six feet tall and their average weight is over 200 pounds, flying in the face of convention in today's league. But don't let their size fool you - with an average rating of nearly 83 in the skating department, these guys can hit you, and get away...quickly.
Buffalo opted to go both old and young in the Dispersal when it came to selecting defensemen. Few thought the Brent Burns pick would mean the perennial All-Star would actually suit up for the Sabres. But everyone knew who the building block was - and that's Jaccob Slavin.
Slavin gives the club one of the more versatile (and unheralded) rearguards in the game today. Lethal in his own end and having developed his offensive game with explosive break-out speed as his career has blossomed, Slavin will be the rock in the backend in Buffalo for many years to come.
Supporting him are veterans in Matt Niskanen, Ron Hainsey, and Jay Bouwmeester - three players that everyone knows has fewer days ahead than behind. But they will guard the temple while Buffalo's plethora of defensive prospects develop - both on the pro club, farm, and in various other leagues (juniors, NCAA, overseas, etc.).
Riley Stillman and Ryan Lindgren (both a combined 44 years of age) will be groomed for top-four positions and figure to be more the stay-at-home types while Slavin and company lead the offensive charge. Adam Clendening can spell most of the top six when needed and will serve as a 7th defenseman should Buffalo employ such a setup at points during the season.
The surprise of Buffalo's Dispersal Draft was easily the goaltending situation that arose from it. The Sabres used their third round selection on Robin Lehner, who ended up being dealt to Chicago for - among others - Thomas Greiss.
Gidlow noticed a pair of goalies who were languishing well into the depths of the Dispersal, and all the way in Round 31, took 38-year old Pekka Rinne. Figuring that interest was also low in another aging tender, Gidlow dealt Greiss to the Islanders for Kristian Vesalainen and a third round Entry Draft pick, and then took that aging goalie - 38-year old Henrik Lundqvist - in Round 39.
Having a tandem with 76 years of combined age is surely not a long-term solution. But in Rinne and Lundqvist, the Sabres have a dependable duo between the pipes for the tidy sum of only $7.5 million in salary (for the next three years, though it's anyone's guess if either will stick around through their full contract terms).
Gidlow has shown a willingness to barter, so it's possible we may see a 'Rinne & Lundy Retirement Tour' followed by a new slate of goalies next season. Obviously, it will depend on how the development of netminder prospects goes - not to mention the prospects of Rinne and Lundqvist hanging it up after only one season in Buffalo.
'Stocked' may be an understatement when it comes to Buffalo's youth movement on the farm. Just down the road a bit will be the Rochester Americans, the Sabres' long-time AHL affiliate, who will sport one of the younger rosters of their rich history.
Led by second overall draft selection Quinton Byfield, the Amerks will mirror the parent club in terms of their speed, size, and ability to plow through their competition. Not too many teams will be able to outmuscle or outscore this bunch, and expectations are high that these future Buffalo hopefuls can add some hardware to their quest of making it to the main stage.
FARM DEPTH CHART
Mathieu Joseph - Quinton Byfield (A) - Dmytro Timashov
Rudolfs Balcers - Aleksi Saarela - Raphael Lavoie
Jordan Nolan (C) - Tyler Graovac - Kristian Vesalainen
Brandon Hagel - Rem Pitlick - Sam Carrick
Extras: Pascal Laberge, Curtis MacKenzie, Jonathan Martin, Anthony Louis, Kevin Lynch
Lucas Carlsson - Julian Melchiori (A)
Dylan Coghlan - Martin Fehervary
William Wallinder - Guillaume Brisebois
Extras: Theodor Lennstrom, Nick DeSimone, Jonathan Aspirot, Jeremy Groleau
Michael McNiven - Nick Schneider
Extra: Tom McCollum
Thanks to a whirlwind of picks at the 2020 BEARD Hockey Entry Draft, the Sabres sport nearly 30 additional players on their prospect list. This isn't just 'quantity over quality' either, as nine of these youngsters came from the top 85 picks in said draft.
Buffalo is deep at every position on the prospect cupboard, though did recently spend some future draft capital by way of 2021 and 2022 picks in recent trades. But Gidlow has stated he will be patient with prospect development, so there is plenty of time to see what of these assets can rise above the others.
PROSPECT DEPTH CHART
Matias Maccelli - Antti Saarela - Serron Noel
Cole Hanas - Evan Vierling - Cole Schwindt
Alex Jeffries - Trevor Kuntar - Graeme Clarke
Leevi Aaltonen - Maxim Denezkhin - Alexandr Darin
Patrik Siikanen - Adam Edstrom - Alexander Pashin
Graham McPhee - Aapeli Rasanen - Jonas Rondbjerg
Matej Blumel (RW)
Ryan Merkley - Yan Kuznetsov
Jack Rathbone - Markus Niemalainen
Ryan Johnson - Filip Berglund
Ilya Konovalov - Joel Blomqvist
Can Gidlow's attempt at a culture change bring success? It seems like in the long run, the Buffalo Sabres are better positioned now for sustainability than at any point in their recent, underwhelming past.
But taking raw talent and molding it into a perennial contender takes time. There is no magic cure-all - the Sabres of all teams should know, having tried many, many times.
Is there a Dominik Hasek among them that can steal games on their own? Is there a breakout star like Alexander Mogilny to take the club on his back? Is there an iconical figure like a Rob Ray, Brad May, or Matthew Barnaby to give the Sabres grit and respect?
Who knows what the debut season of BEARD Hockey may bring. Buffalo could end up hunting for the playoffs. The talent is there to compete. It may take a season or two before the Sabres are knocking at the door.
The only certain thing seems to be that, win or lose, this team will grind it out. They will be entertaining to watch. And the fans - when they are back in the buildings en masse - will know they got an honest effort, night in and night out.
Here we are. The future is now.
The hardest working team in hockey is back.