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Blackhawks Rebuild Report: Lessons from Buffalo’s Rebuild Hell

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The Buffalo Sabres are the poster child of the never ending rebuild. They’ve had chances at the top pick (twice), chosen second (three times) but a lack of consistency in the front office and on the bench hampered what could have been a shorter rebuild. But in the last season, it appears that finally–maybe–the Sabres are finally escaping the hell that has imprisoned the a loyal and very knowledgable fanbase  No matter how painful the last couple seasons were for Chicago Blackhawks fans, they didn’t go through the Sabres wandering in the wilderness.

A look at what Chicago can learn from Buffalo’s journey.

Drafting in the First Round

Luck is a thing. And luck Buffalo received. Just don’t bring up 2015 because instead of Connor McDavid, they got Jack Eichel. Eichel was still very good for them, and would net them some key players in the trade that sent him to Vegas. But McDavid certainly would have

Because this rebuild started essentially in 2013-14, we’re going all the way back to show what they accumulated. But it’s been a ton of first-round choices, 14 to be exact:

  • 2014 – Sam Reinhart (2nd overall)
  • 2015 – Jack Eichel (2nd overall)
  • 2016 – Alex Nylander (8th overall)
  • 2017 – Casey Mittelstadt (8th overall)
  • 2018 – Rasmus Dahlin (1st overall)
  • 2019 – Dylan Cozens (7th overall); Ryan Johnson (31st overall)
  • 2020 – Jack Quinn (8th overall)
  • 2021 – Owen Power (1st overall); Isak Rosen (14th overall)
  • 2022 – Matthew Savoie (9th overall); Noah Ostlund (16th overall); Jiri Kulich (28th overall)
  • 2023 – Zach Benson (13th overall)

Philosophies changed according to Buffalo Hockey Now’s Mike Augello, and we’ll get to that in a moment. But Buffalo’s first selection never picked lower than ninth until 2023–a span of nine seasons. In that span they picked like this in the top ten:

  • First overall – twice
  • Second overall – twice
  • Seventh overall – once
  • Eighth overall – three
  • Ninth overall – once

That’s nine selections in the top ten–and yet the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs in over a decade.

Drafting Beyond and Other Philosophy

Augello rightly points out that it was center heavy until GMs Jason Botterill and Kevyn Adams took over, but the major point is that Buffalo could not settle on a direction. Between Tim Murray, Botterill, and then Adams, they flipped three GMs in a seven year time frame. Coaches? Yikes.

They fired Lindy Ruff in 2013, who had been at the helm for 16 seasons. In the ten seasons that would follow, Buffalo would employ six, with Ralph Krueger being its latest dismissal until hiring Don Granato. Per Augello, Kreuger “almost set the organization back with his dumb decisions.” Jeff Skinner can attest to that:

So the philosophies that came into play really could never take hold because they were too busy making changes. The Sabres stockpiled picks and were gifted into high ones as well, with a generational talent in Dahlin. Yet he didn’t truly become the player everyone expected until the past couple seasons. In fact, he was nearly a point-per-game in 2022-23. That’s the guy Buffalo thought it was getting.

Granato appears to have been the coach they’ve needed, and a ten-win improvement in 2022-23 speaks to it.

For all the drafting a team can do, it doesn’t mean anything unless there’s been consistency in decision making.

Contracts and Trades

Trades are what saved the Buffalo Sabres. When one of its picks didn’t work out, off they went. Blackhawks fans know the tale of Henri Jokiharju, being shipped for Alex Nylander. Sabres won that one. Reinhart? A first-round pick.

Botterill made one of the biggest, shipping Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis and snagging a first-round pick (Johnson) and Tage Thompson among others, who at that point, was what Augello called a “B” level prospect. He was very much a third option but because the Blues took all of the O’Reilly contract, they weren’t budging on the other asks.

Sometimes it’s about luck. The Sabres have seen their share of it. From Augello: “His renaissance was a lucky stroke since they were forced to move him to center after another player was injured in training camp.  He struggled with injury for a couple of seasons, and there were rumors he was being offered around.”

Good things they didn’t trade him. Thompson broke out in a big way in 2021-22 and then set the world afire in 2022-23, with 94 points, an even split of 47 goals and assists.

The Sabres will have negotiations for several high profile players heading into next season, Dahlin being chief among them. But they also have a much better situation as Adams has kept things on the short term, and only locked up sure bets, aka Thompson, to longer extensions.

2024 has a lot of contracts coming off the books and then Adams will have to determine who gets the bridge deals and who he wants to lock up–if he chooses to go that direction. Power and Dahlin will get hefty raises and project to be the foundation that will set the Sabres up through the next decade.

Measuring out the Timeline

It’s been a long decade for Sabres fans, given hope with one high pick after another only to watch another draft with another pick the season later. Last season marked the first winning season in 11 years, and was its highest points percentage since they last made the playoffs in 2010-11.

The Atlantic Divisions is among one of hockey’s toughest, with Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Stanley Cup runner up Florida in it. Detroit is on the rise along with Ottawa. Buffalo, however, seems the likeliest to rise into a more prominent position with the collection of  young players.

Perhaps the final step forward is finally in 2023-24.

Two Lessons for the Blackhawks from the Sabres Rebuild

#1: Consistency in the Front Office and Coaching Staff: The Sabres simply had too much change. Sometimes it’s warranted when something looks completely wrong and isn’t working, aka Krueger. For the Blackhawks, Kyle Davidson has a plan and is working it with the short term contracts with free agents, as many turns as he can get at the draft, and being patient. Handpicked by ownership, it seems like the Blackhawks have this part down. Which leads to point two.

#2:  Calculated risks sometimes pay off better than expected: When the Sabres opted to deal O’Reilly, there were fans and analysts who were critical. A star player shipped in his prime from a franchise that seemingly can’t figure out what direction it takes to get out of the rebuild. But Thompson turned out to be the crown jewel of the deal, as O’Reilly has already gone to Toronto and now the Predators–but still paid off by his contribution to the Blues Stanley Cup run. He skated away with the Conn Smythe Trophy as well.

The Blackhawks may have seen this with the Alex DeBrincat trade.

The Sabres seem poised to finally escape the rebuild in 2023-24. For Blackhawks fans who have had their fill of the Hawks few seasons, the Sabres show it can always be much worse.

Kudos to them for finally, apparently, finding their way out of it.

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