By Ed Kilgore
Terry Pegula probably didn't realize it - or maybe it was his intention - but after he bought the Sabres and told the world the team's reason for existence was to "Win a Stanley Cup", or "Cups" for that matter, the pressure to win was much greater than at any time in the franchise's storied history.
That's not to say there hasn't been pressure to win in the past, and you can go back to the Scotty Bowman years to see just how high the bar of expectations had been raised. That's not to say Punch Imlach didn't demand a winner, but the Sabres were still a new toy in town in the early years. Bowman was a proven winner, and as a gm he bolted to a fast start by engineering two straight drafts that left the Sabres with three first round picks in 1982 and 1983.
In '82 the Sabres took Phil Housely (6th), Paul Cyr (9th) and Dave Andreychuk (16th). Housely and Andreychuk both went on to Hall of Fame careers.
The next season was even better, with Tom Barasso, another future Hall of Famer, heading the trio that included Norm Lacombe and Adam Creighton. Although Lacombe and Creighton were never stars, they were good players who were joined in that same draft by John Tucker, Darren Puppa, Christian Ruuttu and Uwe Krupp. That was one heck of a draft, and the Sabres seemed destined to win another Cup for Bowman.
We all know it didn't happen for a variety of reasons too lengthy, or boring, to rehash here, but the comparison to what's happening now is somewhat similar in terms of what was expected.
There were other good teams of course, and oddly enough, the closest the Sabres ever came to winning a Stanley Cup came with the 2005-2006 team that wasn't expected to be there just yet. That team almost pulled it off, beating the Flyers in six and the Senators in five to reach the Eastern Conference final against eventual Cup winner Carolina. A freak run of injuries to the Sabres defense corps was too much to overcome, as the Sabres still battled the Canes to a 7th game and even had a third period lead in the deciding game. Carolina's toughest test was the Sabres, as 7th seed Edmonton reached the final to give the Canes a somewhat easier path than they might have had.
That's when the pressure began to mount for the Sabres, who had an exciting team the following season that won the President's Trophy as the NHL's best team during the regular season. The Sabres again reached the Eastern Conference Finals, but this time they were victimized by the Senators team they'd surprised the year before, and then it all came apart.
Good bye to Danny Briere and Chris Drury, as owner Tom Golisano and managing partner Larry Quinn underestimated the cost of allowing them to hit the open market.
This much we can say about the current situation that makes it different though. Golisano was focused on not losing money and keeping a competitive team on the ice, even if it meant losing a star or two along the way. That is not the situation for Pegula, worth over $3 billion and one of the wealthiest owners in all of professional sports.
So far Pegula's moves haven't paid many obvious dividends despite the explosion of excitement that came from adding some talented free agents in the off season, something that had been almost unheard of in the Sabres past. So far though, Ville Leino is still adjusting. Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr are good additions but not impact players as yet. Tyler Myers signed a lucrative long term deal but hasn't been the player he was as a rookie, and was even a healthy scratch for a game for the first time in his career.
Adding to the pressure, was the highly visible improvement to the Sabres training and locker room areas, now among the best in the NHL. Yes, it's great, but the guys are well aware Pegula didn't do this just to be a great guy.
But the players also see this isn't just about fancy new digs and overpaying for free agents. Take the Myers extension, for example. He's only 21 years old, yet Lindy Ruff and gm Darcy Regier obviously believe he's a legit long term asset, and Pegula then gave the green light to a 7 year, $38.5 million deal. No longer do players or fans worry about the Briere and Drury defections, and they weren't the only departures linked to money of course.
There is still a lot of hockey to be played, and if the Sabres can ever become reasonably healthy for a long stretch, they could not only reach the playoffs but make a serious run.
If not, then things may change, and not just a little. Is Regier safe? Even Ruff, the longest tenured coach in the league could be expendable. Who knows, even Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek could become parts of deals, and their big contracts won't matter to Pegula. He can afford to match or exceed their deals if it comes to that in terms of a player or players acquired.
There is a strong group of young players, and the injuries have given the players like Zack Kassian, Luke Adam and Jonas Enroth among others the opportunity to remain a part of an organization that is committed to winning.
When the owner says he wants to win a Stanley Cup and doesn't mind paying for it, the stakes go up, and while it may actually hinder progress for awhile, the publicly stated goal is a huge positive if you believe in self fulfilling prophesies.
That's a safe bet if you look at Pegula business history. His vision became real.