Most hockey fans are familiar with the work of ESPN's John Buccigross. I have kind of a love-hate relationship with Bucci. On one hand, I love how enthusiastic he is about hockey and it's go to know that there are atleast two people at ESPN who think it counts as a sport. His casual, goofy style can be endearing. On the other hand, his casual, goofy style can easily veer into over-indulgent. I don't care what bands he's listening to. I don't care what he would name people's babies. (Seriously, people, do you not have favorite hockey players of your own who you can name your child after?). I really don't care about his book (coming soon to bookstores near you!). All of that stuff would be bearable if it didn't often completely overwhelm the actual hockey content which is why I'm reading him in the first place. But Bucci's weekly column is a regular part of my routine and he is often right about various things so it was with great interest that I read his season preview of the Buffalo Sabres. My immediate reaction was something along the lines of "What the hell?"
If you want to read the whole thing you can find it at ESPN.com (I'd post a link but I can't pull up the article at the moment for some reason). Bucci slams management for not re-signing Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and says the team may still have a sturdy undercarriage but won't be able to survive without its spine. But this was the section that really bugged me and quite frankly, kind of shocked me:
The Bruins and Blackhawks appear to be reconstructing from the rubble of ineptitude with new people throughout the organization. The Sabres are (for now) stuck with GM Darcy Regier and owner Tom Golisano and their vision of mediocrity. The Sabres are still a good team with a very good goalie, but the magic is gone.
Now I will admit that I'm a bit of a Darcy apologist and probably defend him even when he might not really deserve defending but this is so far over-the-top that it almost reaches Bucky Gleason levels. That, my friends, is not a good place to be. I was so bothered by this that I had to email Bucci. A couple people I've mentioned this to have said they'd like to read what I sent so I'm sharing it here. It's a pretty good final summary of how I'm feeling about the team and what I'm hoping to see this season. Plus it's already written so I don't have to think of anything new to say. Oh, something else I should clarify so there's no confusion. With his preview of each team, Bucci includes lyrics from a song. For us he chose Pete Yorn's The Man which is why I reference it in my letter.
"The Bruins and Blackhawks appear to be reconstructing from the rubble of ineptitude with new people throughout the organization. The Sabres are (for now) stuck with GM Darcy Regier and owner Tom Golisano and their vision of mediocrity. The Sabres are still a good team with a very good goalie, but the magic is gone."
All I can say is, what the heck?
Did Regier and Golisano make some mistakes with Briere and Drury? Probably. But they did attempt to sign Briere last summer - he took them to arbitration and he was rewarded a then ridiculous 5 million dollars. And they were allegedly willing to match Drury's offer from the Rangers and he, for whatever reason, wasn't interested. It's easy to say that the Sabres should've re-signed both guys but it's not as easy as handing them contracts and asking them to sign on the dotted line. In your Philly preview you say that Briere isn't worth the money he was paid and say his production will probably drop over the next few years but the Sabres should've held on to him? For all the (well deserved) praise heaped on both players, Buffalo didn't win a Cup while they were here. Chris and Danny crapped out in the playoffs this past year as much as any of the other players not named Ryan Miller did (I know you love Chris but he got smoked in the face-off circle during the Ottawa series among other things).
Darcy Regier has been in Buffalo for ten years. His reign of mediocrity includes more conference finals appearances than every other team but one in that period. It includes the revival of a bankrupt franchise and a pretty downtrodden fan base. It includes the development of a farm system that was so rich that a serious string of injuries last season barely affected the team's regular season performance. Before the salary cap, Regier had to deal with a small market budget and GMs who were constantly blowing up the market with their bloated contracts and somehow, some way, he usually managed to put a competitive team on the ice. Have they won a Stanley Cup during his tenure? No, obviously not. But you know, only one team wins it every year. It's not that easy to do. Regier has regularly iced teams that have had a chance, and as a fan that's all you can really ask for. I know a lot of fan bases - including Chicago and Boston - who would happily take the mediocrity we've been saddled with during the Regier years.
Listen, I'm not going to argue that losing Briere and Drury isn't going to have an affect on the team this season. It certainly is and as a fan I'll miss watching them and I wish them well in their new locations. But the Sabres are still a very good team. We have two lines who can score like crazy cakes (Vanek-Roy-Afinogenov and
Kotalik-Connolly-Pominville) and a third line that will chip in its share (Gaustad-Hecht-Stafford). We have a great top defensive pairing in Tallinder and Lydman and a number of mobile, puck-moving defensemen. And we have a rapidly maturing Ryan Miller who was the one bright spot of the postseason last year. He kept the team in every single game, including a few they had no right to be in. Maybe most importantly, most of the above players are Buffalo draftees (Regier again) who have grown up and developed together as players and people. From all appearances, they like and care for each other and I think it's a mistake to underestimate the importance of that. I don't think it's incompetence or arrogance to let two guys who are being vastly overpaid walk out of town and show some faith in the undercarriage, especially when the undercarriage is skilled and still maturing. The Sabres most effective line last season is still here. Their best defensive pairing is still here. A vastly gifted playmaker who was on the shelf all last year is still here. Their very good young goalie is still here. The fact that these players haven't had to carry the show, doesn't mean they can't and won't. I'm thinking a little less "The Man" and a lot more "The Kids are Alright."
So yeah... I'm calling it now: The Sabres will finish second in the division (behind Ottawa), fourth in the conference, and will be hitting their groove in March around the time the Rangers implode.
Despite the above, I am glad to see you and hockey back. (But you're still wrong.)
I did get a response. "Thanks for reading Heather! Enjoy the season! John." Clearly he knew my argument was air-tight and beyond debate. I'm disappointed. Bucky would've written back to tell me why exactly I was wrong.
So yeah... I'm optimistic. I know it's not going to be the same team it was last year but I'm really not convinced it's going to be a bad team. In fact, it could be a pretty darn good team. If nothing else, I fully expect to see the kids play their hearts out. They all seem tired of talking about Drury and Briere and they should have a huge chip on their shoulders about the way their contributions over the last couple of seasons are being disregarded. Derek, Max, and Van should be furious that people are acting like their line was unimportant last year. Hank and Toni should be annoyed that Drury evidently killed off all the penalties and shut down the opposition's best players. Pommers should be upset that Briere supposedly made him the hockey player he was. Ryan should be really pissed that Chris and Danny are being considered the difference makers. The entire team should be worked up about the way people are acting like Chris and Danny are the only ones who experienced the ups and downs of the last two seasons, like no one else remembers how great it felt to win and how heart-breaking it was to lose. I'm ready to see what the kids are going to do and I'm really glad I only have to wait... 17 and a half more hours!