Seeking a Better Standard

There’s been a heck of a lot more bad than good coming out of One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza over the past few years.

Yet another NHL season is dragging to a close with more eyes on lottery odds than the playoff race and aside from the bankruptcy era’s rumors of relocation, it’s hard to think of a worse time in franchise history for the Sabres and their fans.

While the on-ice results may not have been overly surprising to some, the combination of more losing and a generally underwhelming 50th anniversary season and it isn’t hard to see where the fans’ frustration has come from.

Between radio rants, empty seats, legions of away fans and a return to lottery status, this year’s optics are just as bad, if not worse than last year’s eerily similar campaign. All of this has led observers to begin wondering what comes next for the Sabres. Does Jason Botterill survive another slide? Will we see a new Peace Bridge before the arena is renovated? Is fan experience something the organization actually takes seriously? Is there any hope that an acquisition will be made that can make the team competitive?

All of this has brought about something I had thought about earlier this year on The Instigator Podcast when discussing the standards and expectations of teams that had fired their coach or GM. What exactly are the standards that the organization operates under? More specifically, what standards and expectations have the owners set for the organization?

The Sabres have had quite a bit of egg on their face this year. Another losing season coupled with difficult situations like missing the deadline to file for specialty uniforms has put the club in a very disadvantageous situation. It’s been a vicious cycle of bad PR as on-ice setbacks are trumped by off-ice incidents only to be further underscored by more poor on-ice play.

The business and off-ice side of things deserves a blog post unto itself as the Sabres have been thoroughly lapped by their expansion cousins in 50th anniversary celebrations and rarely does it feel like they’re operating on the same level as the other 30 teams when it comes to off-ice efforts. For every hit (Aud Night, video production) it feels like there are twice as many misses. Small things like misspelling alumni jerseys, missing the deadline for throwbacks, under-ordering third jerseys or having a light promo schedule have added up to larger fan frustrations in the face of on-ice struggles.

Resolving those struggles has been a tougher chore for Jason Botterill than expected. He’s failed to meet his predecessor’s results in three seasons of work. It’s getting harder to see Botterill survive into the summer, but it doesn’t feel inevitable either. Something that’s become an annual rite in recent years.

It’s not as if the Sabres have been shy about firing coaches or GMs. But the dismissals of Tim Murray, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley all came at the end of the year, rather than at a point where an arguably more definitive statement over the course of the club could have been made.

That’s not all bad, either. I’d certainly prefer patience in evaluating staff as opposed to a happy trigger finger. Not to mention that any time a coach or GM is fired, the motivation to improve is clear. However, the Sabres have been treading water for half a decade while teams in far better standing than them have shown the willingness to make immediate change.

For example, the Vegas Golden Knights played in the Stanley Cup final just two years ago and were a fluke power play away from being a second-round team in just their second year of existence. They opted to fire their coach in the middle of this season (after a loss to the Sabres!). It hasn’t even been a full year since the Devils won the draft lottery and they too dumped their GM as his offseason maneuvering didn’t pan out.

Meanwhile, the Sabres have stuck with their GM as they struggle to break 80 points once again.

So where is the disconnect? Are the owners adverse to hanging an interim tag on a coach or GM? Do they not believe that an in-season change would bring about better results? Everyone’s favorite team, the 2018-19 St. Louis Blues certainly determined that their standards needed to be better when they brought in Craig Berube last winter (finding a goalie helped too).

I can see some reticence to make a move sooner rather than later may be motivated out of concern of repeating past mistakes. Rex Ryan, Doug Whaley, Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma may be serving as cautionary tales for the owners who hope to find a similar synergy with the Sabres as they’ve found with Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott. But I can’t help but doubt they would spring to action if a marquee name became available as either coach or GM on the hockey side.

Is this simply a case of patience with the process of reshaping a roster? If it is, we’ve seen three seasons and very little progress (and roster change). Or is it worse and are the Sabres not operating with the same standards for success as the rest of the league?

I find it hard to believe that the latter is true. But as another season slipped away the only move that was made for months was acquiring 32-year-old Michael Frolik. In spite of that, the GM was allowed to navigate another trade deadline and despite a growing string of losses, we are still waiting to see if he’ll be given the keys for the draft and offseason. I hesitate to say the Sabres are in a no-win situation given their need for patience in building through the draft and to start winning games in the short term. But the results speak for themselves and I can’t help but think most other franchises would have enacted some change by now.

Like so many things that the Sabres have stumbled over in recent years, the obvious answers seem to evade them. And like recent years, we’re left wondering if they’ll figure it out.

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