By Jacob Beal
Special to Niagara Frontier Publications
For the past seven years, the Buffalo Sabres have finished in the bottom half of the NHL and have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the 2010-11 season. In the past seven seasons, which included three last-place finishes, the Sabres established themselves as the national laughing stock of the league.
These last seven years has been one big struggle for the entire organization. The 2014-15 season saw the Sabres actively trying to lose in order to obtain the first overall draft pick. Not only did the Sabres lose a lot that season, but they also lost out on the Draft Lottery and had to pick second instead. Although the Sabres had to resort to picking second, they still ended up with their franchise player, Jack Eichel.
In these seven tumultuous seasons the Sabres went through two head coaches and two general managers, the organization defined dysfunctional.
According to ESPN NHL attendance records, attendance dipped to a seven-year-low of 94.5 percent, which seems high, but that ranked only 15th in the league and what was once a raucous building, now felt like a ghost town. The effort on the ice was uninspired and, as attendance shows, fans stopped caring because all the team knew how to do was lose.
Although the Sabres have been the "losers" of the league for the past years, the tides have started to turn. The talent of the teams that the Sabres used to put on the ice is a far cry from what it is today. The Sabres are constantly finding ways to claw their way back into games and the resiliency of this team is second to none.
The biggest cause of the Sabres early season success was the tremendous offseason put together by second year general manager Jason Botterill. He managed to steal high scoring-winger Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes and also added two key pieces in the pesky winger Connor Sheary and underrated goaltender Carter Hutton.
One of the best acquisitions in Sabres history has been that Skinner. Skinner has 18 goals in 24 games, as of Nov. 24. If Skinner continues to produce at this rate, he will easily surpass his career high in goals of 37. Although Skinner has been setting the league on fire, he is an impending free agent and his asking price will be very high. Sabres fans continue to beg and plead on social media for the Sabres to extend Skinners' contract, but no moves have been made yet.
Sabres reporter John Warrow said this: "They (the fans) don't want you to leave, you know?" Skinner responded by saying: "I know. I've heard. I'm having a lot of fun, too."
Skinner seems like he is enjoying his time in Buffalo so far. All fans can do is wait and hope he is signed to a long-term deal.
Although those key offseason acquisitions were essential, the Sabres hit the jackpot in the draft. Out of the previous two last-place finishes, the Sabres lost the Draft Lottery twice and had to pick second instead of first. But last season was different. The Sabres finally got lucky and won the right to select first overall. With that honor, they selected superstar teenage phenom Rasmus Dahlin from Sweden.
The defenseman has been everything that was advertised of him. At only the ripe age of 18-years-old, there's plenty of time, and room, for improvement. Dahlin has skated with confidence, while effortlessly commanding the pace of play on the ice. The 18-year-old makes the game look easy at times and has a tendency to make grown men look foolish.
With the upgrades the Sabres have made in the past offseason, the team is set up for extended success. The core of Eichel, Dahlin, Ristolainen and (hopefully) Skinner, gives Sabres fans plenty of things to be excited about for the coming seasons.
Most Sabres fans are ecstatic and are on cloud nine, but there are some who are more cautious than others when it comes to the hot start the Sabres have had.
Local Sabres fan Chase Moreland said: "During the Sabres hot start to the season, they have played only one quality starting goaltender. That quality starter is Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild. All of the other goaltenders the Sabres have faced either aren't good, or are backups. So, while the Sabres are playing well, fans should not be overly excited until the Sabres are taken more seriously by other teams in the NHL." Said Moreland.
Unlike some more pessimistic fans, Joseph Muller is one who is liking what he has seen so far, and he didn't hold back on past players.: "After ditching the previous piece of trash in the goal crease (Robin Lehner), the Sabres now have a legitimate possibility of coming out with a win when the game is on the line," said Muller. "The goaltenders that we have now stop shots when it matters and continue to play when the game goes into overtime rather than giving up after the third period."
The Sabres success so far has not only gave hope to longtime fans of the team, but the success has also drawn attention from individuals who may not have previously cared about the Sabres.
Buffalonian Shelly Johnson had this to say about the Sabres surprising start to the season: "The Sabres have been absolutely terrible for the last couple of years so I never had any hope or any care for the team, just like the rest of Buffalo. I thought to myself 'When will this city ever have a good team?' and it seemed like that question would never be answered. But with some nice drafting decisions and offseason moves, here we are, near the top of the NHL standings."
With the success of the season so far, some may think the Sabres will get ahead of themselves and start playing cocky, but that doesn't seem like that will be the case for this hockey team. When asked recently about the Sabres hot start, head coach Phil Housley said this, according to Buffalo Hockey Beat: "We don't talk about it...we just focus on the next game..." Explained Housley.
It's extremely promising to see the Sabres have no intentions of slowing down and will continue to fight until the ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup is reached. Although that may not come this year, the future looks bright in Buffalo and once again we can say Buffalo Sabres hockey is back.
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