Sabres hit the jackpot

May 01, 2018 - 9:54 am

So where were you?

I was alone in my basement for the big reveal, my wife sick and our children asleep. The jolt of energy I felt was intense. I wanted to go out and celebrate, but I showed a rare example of good judgment and stayed in. I remember where I was for each of these last few lotteries, and I don't expect to forget this big moment anytime soon.

Saturday's NHL Draft Lottery win by the Buffalo Sabres was, for many of us, surreal to watch. Maybe it's because you can't believe it when Buffalo ever wins anything. Maybe it's because you knew 18.5-percent odds aren't all that good. Either way, it was a feeling we don't know too well: victory.

I think I was like most fans, in that I didn't spend much time at all pondering the Sabres winning this lottery -- even with their having the best odds. Put another way, I spent a small fraction of the time doing that that I did three years ago heading into the Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel draft. The difference is two-fold: Either McDavid or Eichel was a lock to join the Sabres, and my feeling about the team heading into each lottery varied greatly.

Three years ago, I was stoked. I liked then-general manager Tim Murray, and I saw him as a steely risk-taker, someone ready to slam on the gas and speed the Sabres up the standings. The complete opposite of his measured predecessor, Darcy Regier. I'm getting old here, let's go.

I also defended Murray and the Sabres for their rebuilding plan at every turn. As true now as it was then, and ever, in pro sports there's no point in finishing in the middle. They targeted "McEichel" from a good distance, they landed him, and now it was off to the races.

What happened? Despite Eichel's excellence and a huge improvement in Year 1, things fell apart. Three years into Eichel's career, the Sabres had fully become a depressing sight. They were that new restaurant in town that got all the buzz when it opened, only to fall asunder to tax cheating and health-code violations. You drive by it every day on your way to work and there it is, empty. It had so much promise.

Apart from winning this lottery, I had very little hope for the Sabres turning it around anytime soon. Burdened by a few ugly long-term contracts, and with rumors everywhere about the overall chemistry and professionalism of the players, it has looked like a really steep climb.

Now, because of Saturday's good fortune, enter Rasmus Dahlin, the Swedish prodigy who turned 18 just three weeks ago. We asked Sabres general manager Jason Botterill on Monday if it's out of line to talk like the Sabres already have selected this player, even though the draft isn't until late June, and he didn't say no. They probably can't produce Dahlin Sabres jerseys to sell at the arena, but they surely had better have some ready as soon as the pick is made. It's a formality.

The timing couldn't have been better.

(Aside: If anybody you know makes the first hint that by winning this lottery and not previous ones the Sabres somehow got paid off for not "tanking", feel free to disown them as a person knowledgeable about sports or anything else. You know how an old thermometer makes room for temperatures like 30 or 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, even though where it's placed never gets nearly that cold? Attributing the Sabres' luck, both good and bad, to anything associated with karma is a take somehow lower than those lowest temperatures. Or if that constitutes a "hot take", maybe I should go the other way. Whatever. Just please, never be in a position in your life when you have take seriously someone this person says, on any subject.)

Like anyone, Dahlin is no guarantee -- although he might come pretty close to one. His imminent arrival isn't about having any certainty that he'll be amazing, or that the Sabres will win. It's about hope, and there's lots of value just in that. When the Sabres finished last in 2015, I said once that doing so was worth more than two Stanley Cups. Obviously they haven't come close to winning any yet. But the hope could be -- and still can be -- justified. Eichel is an elite talent, who now happens to be signed for eight more seasons. He was worth it. And not only can he represent the dream of a championship, having a top player such as Eichel makes watching your team more enjoyable.

"Winning" Eichel made me want to keep my season tickets. Three years have gone by and it had become very tempting to give them back. Enter, unexpectedly, Dahlin, and I'm having the same feeling. Hope is renewed. Another great player is on his way.

Saying the very least, hopefully this time the Sabres don't screw the rest up.

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