Suffering ends for the tanking Sabres

Tony Callens, Staff Writer

After one of the most unique seasons in NHL history, it’s finally over and the draft lottery is in the books. Connor McDavid is presumably going to the Edmonton Oilers after they were awarded the first overall pick in June’s draft. It will be the fourth time in six years that the Oilers will pick first overall. The Buffalo Sabres will pick second and most likely draft forward Jack Eichel out of Boston University.

Both players are widely considered “generational talents.” Terms such as “the next Crosby” have been thrown at McDavid, who plays junior hockey down the road for the Erie Otters of the OHL. McDavid had a ridiculous 120 points in 47 games on the season. These are numbers that dwarf those recorded by names such as Crosby, Tavares, Kane and Toews when they were at the junior level.

Eichel is no slouch himself, and despite being behind McDavid in the eyes of many, he has the potential to be a generational player himself. The 18-year-old became the first freshman to win the Hobey Baker award (the Heisman trophy of college hockey) since Paul Kariya won it out of the University of Maine in the 1992-93 season. Eichel led the Boston University Terriers to the National Championship Game just one year removed from the worst season in the program’s history, where they finished last in the ECAC. He is already regarded as one of the greatest NCAA Division I hockey players of all time, and by some, is considered the more polished product coming into the NHL.

The draft lottery works as follows: 14 balls numbered one to 14 are placed in a lottery machine. Four of these balls are randomly selected from the machine in a combination of four numbers. A chart of these number combinations was made for the 14 teams who did not reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The team that has the number sequence of the balls selected wins the draft lottery and the first overall pick in this year’s entry draft. The team who finished last in the standings is given a certain amount of number combinations and has a 20% chance of winning the lottery with the percentages going all the way down to 1% for the 14th place team. In essence, the worse a team finishes, the more combos they have, and more combos means a better chance of obtaining the first overall pick. On top of that, the team that finished in last is guaranteed to pick no worse than second overall.

With this process in mind and the reward for winning the draft lottery in place, “the tank” was born. “Tanking,” or having the goal of finishing in last place, has split hockey fans and media around the league, leading to questions regarding the ethics of basically losing on purpose without actually fixing games.

The debate between supporters of the tank and anti-tankers has been a long, arduous topic for the entirety of the season that has seen friends, family members and co-workers fight amongst each other. Buffalo State’s radio station, WNBY, has a panel discussion hockey talk show called Neutral Ice, where all season long, the debate has torn its members down the middle. The city of Buffalo has been torn all season. Knowing the prize of possibly being in last place with the best chance of winning the lottery, Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray gutted the roster to make it the worst it could be, traded two starting goaltenders and openly shared with the media that he had thoughts about the possibility of having McDavid on his roster.

“I watch him too much and I think too much about him. I wish I could help myself,” he said.

The impact of the tank left other fans and media questioning the integrity of Sabres fans. Fans were rooting for the tank and blatantly did so at a game on March 26 at the First Niagara Center against the Arizona Coyotes, who were fighting with Buffalo for last place and ended up in 29 out of 30 teams. At the game in question, Sabres fans were seen cheering when the Coyotes scored and when they won the game in overtime, 4-3.

To the anti-tankers, I raise you this question: would you rather the team win games this season and receive a marginal prospect and only slightly improve the team? Would you be accepting of mediocrity for the next ten years? By tanking and finishing in last place, the Buffalo Sabres may not have won the right to draft McDavid, but Eichel is the consolation prize and a pretty great one at that. He instantly makes the team better, and now at the sacrifice of a season, the team now has its face for possibly the next 10 years.

Ironically, the biggest tankers of all, the Edmonton Oilers who finished in 28th place and have been the laughing stock of the NHL for the past nine years, win the golden goose. For the NHL, this couldn’t be a worse result. McDavid goes to a small market in western Canada that gets little to no exposure and is the worst run organization in the league.

I was at the Pearl Street Brewery for the Sabres-Blue Jackets game that Buffalo lost to solidify last place, amongst a loud cheer when the clock struck zeros. My friends and I were filming a documentary about the tank that is still in the middle of production. We interviewed two Sabres fans who put it best about Oilers General Manager Craig McTavish when asked what was wrong with Edmonton all these years.

“Well, McTavish was the last person in the NHL to play without a helmet,” one of them said.

The draft lottery is over and the Edmonton Oilers have won. The tank is over and some have feelings of excitement, some of disappointment, but for the most part the feeling is one of relief. It’s finally over and fans can go back to rooting for the Sabres again.

Murray may have told the media he was disappointed for the fans, but he doesn’t need to be. The Sabres are getting a generational player in Jack Eichel. A player who, as ESPN’s John Buccigross said on WGR’s Howard Simon Show, is a player who “passes like Adam Oates and shoots like Alex Ovechkin.”

Be excited Sabres fans, Eichel is going to don the blue and gold and the future couldn’t be brighter.

Email at [email protected]