Tanking or trying? Sabres answer

The Sabres are last in the NHL with a 14-30-3 record and on an 11-game losing streak. Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For anyone who hasn't been to Buffalo in a few years, it hits you like a sledge hammer.

The area around downtown First Niagara Center looks like a whole different place, the HaborCenter complex and new hotels revitalizing a once-depressed neighborhood.

If there were NHL titles handed out for off-ice success, the Buffalo Sabres would finally be champions.

But the on-ice product has a long way to go to catch up to the business side.

"Well, hopefully the one follows the other," Sabres forward Cody Hodgson told ESPN.com last week. "The Pegulas have done a great job really revitalizing the downtown here, and making it exciting. A lot has changed around the arena and the city to make it a fun place to come and play. Hopefully, we can build on that and transfer that to on-ice success."

Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula are the toast of this city, saving the NFL's Buffalo Bills and paying out of pocket some $200 million to build the HarborCenter complex, a sparkling two-ice-sheet facility that includes a sports bar, restaurant and Tim Hortons coffee shop.

It is in that very Tim Hortons that ESPN.com sat down last week with Sabres president Ted Black, Pegula's right-hand man, with hockey pictures of former Sabres star Tim Horton adorning the walls and giving this coffee house more of a Sabres Hall of Fame feel than anything else.

"It's extremely unique," Black says of the HarborCenter complex. "When we came here, Terry knew that he wanted to make a difference outside of hockey, but just didn't know yet in what form. Where we sit now used to be a parking lot owned by the city."

About three and a half years ago, they were approached by people who wanted to build a parking garage in this spot.

"We had been to Kettler [the Washington Capitals' practice facility] and we said almost in jest, 'Hey, do you know you can put an ice rink on top of a garage? They did it in Washington,'" Black recalled.

Black brought a group to Washington to tour the Kettler facility. That spurned the vision for HaborCenter, which became a more grandiose edifice.

You can't help but feel the excitement that exudes from Black as he points to the surrounding area. But then your mind drifts back to the hockey team.

The Buffalo Sabres sit dead last in the NHL with a 14-30-3 record, entering the All-Star break having lost 11 games in a row, a franchise record.

"It is difficult," admitted Black, crossing his arms. "In some ways, I'm either blessed or cursed that I worked for the Penguins from 1999 to 2008. I constantly remind people that it didn't happen overnight there, either. The Penguins went five straight years picking in the top five in the draft."

When Pegula bought the team, in February 2011, he flashed his deep pockets and made Sabres fans giddy with the kind of payroll money never before seen in these parts. But overspending on free agents -- think Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff -- backfired under former general manager Darcy Regier. The team never meshed and missed the playoffs in 2011-12 in what began a gradual decline to the bottom of the standings. Regier and longtime coach Lindy Ruff were fired along the way and core veterans, such as Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller, were sold off.

A total, methodical rebuild was put into place, one that will require a few more years to complete. If all goes well, that is.

"It does require patience," Black said. "What we're doing on-ice with the rebuild, if you project to next year's draft, we will have been in a four-year draft cycle where we will have had 17 first- and second-round picks. That's the most in franchise history."

The big carrot at the end of a 30th-place showing this season would be either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, a pair of generational talents that should transform any franchise. A 30th-place finish guarantees no worse than the second overall pick in the draft lottery.

"They're tanking, we all know that, but how do you prove it?" one Western Conference executive said this week.

The lottery was changed this season, giving every non-playoff team a shot at the No. 1 pick, but with the odds obviously stacked against the higher-ranked teams.

The Sabres were vehemently opposed to any draft lottery change, GM Tim Murray sharing his opposition during a GMs meeting at the Stanley Cup finals in June.

But the changes came anyway.

Although not enough for some hockey people.

"If I had my way, no team could ever draft first overall in back-to-back years, maybe not even more than once every three years," a different Western Conference team executive said. "They were already talking openly about McDavid in November. I'm sorry, but that's just wrong. We're supposed to be competing."

In fact, the Sabres hosted an Ontario Hockey League game featuring McDavid's Erie Otters earlier this season. Not exactly subtle, right?

If the Sabres finish 30th overall, they'll get either McDavid or Eichel.

But is it tanking?

One league office executive pointed out to ESPN.com earlier this season that the fact the Sabres went out and acquired veterans Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges in the offseason proved that the Sabres were not intentionally tanking.

"We are what we are," said Murray, hired from the Ottawa Senators last season. "I don't think there's anybody in the organization that was unhappy when we went 8-3 during an 11-game stretch. Certainly, the players and coaches weren't. You can be the second-last team at the end of the year and win the lottery. There's no guarantees either way. And we know that."

Sabres fans are on board with tanking. Check out social media and you'll quickly see that, for the most part, the passionate Western New York and Southern Ontario Sabres fans are all-in on the idea of losing now to get McDavid or Eichel.

Consider that the Sabres still have 16,000 season-ticket holders. They weren't keeping their tickets for this season, they're buying in for the McDavid or Eichel era.

Just don't try to sell that idea inside the Sabres' dressing room.

"Those were questions I was asked in the summer when I got here, losing on purpose to get the high draft pick, it's ridiculous," Gorges told ESPN.com last week. "Never in my life have I heard about losing on purpose. Never. That's one of the most asinine things I've ever heard of in my life. People can have their opinions, that's one of the great things of pro sports is talking about all kinds of things, that's the world we live in, but it's our job as players in here to ignore it."

The captain, Gionta, can't think of a more insulting insinuation than the idea of tanking.

"No, for sure not," he said. "The guys in this room are trying to find ways to win. You're not relying on an 18-year-old kid to come in next year and save the organization. Look at Edmonton, they've had high picks for a long time. You can't just rely on that. With the new [draft lottery system], you're not even guaranteed the pick whether you're last or not. So that whole notion is definitely a frustrating subject."

Added Sabres head coach Ted Nolan: "It's insulting. I've been around with the game for a long time. I've never been associated with anyone who said, 'Let's lose this game.' Hey, winning is hard. There's no sense in planning not to."

Black also dismissed the notion of tanking.

"'Tanking,' I think, has become a shorthand for 'rebuilding,'" said the Sabres president. "We're rebuilding. Every game, I talked to 25 or 30 season-ticket holders; we have a reception for them, it's an open question and answer session. And they get it, they get the plan."

Black pointed out that when you trade veteran stars such as Pominville and Miller, it's obvious the team on the ice will suffer in the short term.

"You diminish yourself significantly in the present," Black said. "But the hope is that it's the future. We've gone through a dismantling. Are we trying to tank? No. But the performance is going to slip when you trade All-Stars for picks. It's a consequence of a rebuild that's going to require patience and time."

In the meantime, it's a soul-sucking experience for the players. Gionta and Gorges were leaders on the Montreal Canadiens. Going from a trip to the Eastern Conference finals last season to living this kind of season with the Sabres has been difficult.

The focus for both leaders is to ensure that the youngsters on this Sabres squad don't think losing is acceptable.

"For sure, that's something you don't want to set in, that it's OK," Gionta said. "You don't want guys coming in after a loss and feeling like we made strides. This game is all about winning. Part of the turnaround is changing that culture, the feel in the room, what's acceptable and what's not."

Hinting at what's transpired in Edmonton over the past eight years, Gorges said it's imperative to establish what's acceptable now.

"You can get all the best young players in the world, all the draft picks, but if you breed them into a negative environment, a losing environment, they don't know any different," Gorges said. "And it becomes acceptable. I think that's part of the job for guys like myself and Brian and a few others in this room that have come in here, is to change the culture. Whether we're outmanned, and we've had a number of key injuries, we're missing guys every night, but that attitude has to stay the right one. We can't stray away from that part of it. We can't just say, 'This is OK. This is what happens here.' Losing is never acceptable under any circumstance. You have to learn from it and get better."

So, what exactly can Gorges do to send that message to younger teammates?

"That's the hard part. Because you have to find the right approach to address those issues," he said. "Sometimes it needs to be a little bit of a snap show, you need to lose it a little bit. I've lost it a couple of times. I don't take losing easy. But you can't do that all the time because then guys will tune you out and then you end up on the outside. There's a time and a place for it. You try to find what works best."

This is exactly why Murray brought both these former Habs into the fold.

"Brian was captain of the Montreal Canadiens, that's real," Murray said. "Then I got a call on Josh Gorges. It might have been easy to say, 'Why would a rebuilding team trade a second-round pick away for an older player?' But it made sense to me, because of the kids we have on the team. We'll be adding more kids next year. They have to become pros. They need help.

"Listen, I wasn't sure where we would finish this year, I certainly knew we wouldn't win the Stanley Cup, I didn't think we'd be a playoff team. But you need good people around, you have to have that."

It is Murray, in fact, who is the most important figure charged with turning around this hockey team. His scouting prowess is what got him the job. He was a central figure with the Anaheim Ducks, drafting both Ryan Getzlaf (19th) and Corey Perry (28th) so low in the 2003 draft. He's always had a good eye for talent.

He's a first-time NHL GM, though. It's a daunting task.

"I think we have a great GM in Tim," Black said. "This is a great opportunity for somebody who has a great eye for talent to be blessed with three first-round picks and two second[-round] picks in the upcoming draft."

The Sabres also have the St. Louis Blues' first-round pick (via the Ryan Miller trade last season) and the New York Islanders' first-round pick (from the Thomas Vanek trade last season). Neither will be high picks, but they're first-round picks nonetheless.

Already there's a base of youngsters on the Sabres, such as All-Star forward Zemgus Girgensons, 21, as well as blueliners Rasmus Ristolainen, 20, and Nikita Zadorov, 19.

Throw in defenseman Mark Pysyk, 23, who seems ready for the NHL but remains in the AHL, as well as 19-year-old center Sam Reinhart, who starred in the recent world junior championships for gold-medalist Canada, and it's a start. It's not enough yet, but it's something.

"They have some really good pieces, no question," said a Western Conference GM. "But you have to be careful not to bring them in too soon. The big thing is not just drafting, but are they developing the players properly? That's bigger than anything else. Are they spending enough money to have the right people to develop the players the right way? That's very important."

That's exactly what Murray believes.

"What I'm trying to do is, we've instituted a different scouting system, we've grown our player development people, we've added a head amateur scout and a head pro scout," the Sabres GM said. "What I'm trying to do is find a system that makes the players better; develop them."

And there are more kids coming in the June draft.

"We have three first-round picks and two second-round picks and we may have more than that after the trade deadline," said Murray, who will try to move more assets in order to gain more picks before the March 2 trade deadline.

"The amateur scouts didn't stop their list at No. 2. They went 100-plus. They understand we have to be prepared for the whole draft. This draft is not all about Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. There's a chance we pick third or fourth, no question."

Well, that would be nothing short of a mini-disaster if the Sabres don't get one of the top two picks, not that anyone here would publicly admit it.

But it is indeed not a sure thing the Sabres will finish last.

Which is what his players are trying to avoid, despite evidence to the contrary in the loss column.

"I mean, if you ask anyone that plays professional sports in any league, in any sport, they're not going to say they like losing," Moulson said. "Nobody in here likes it. We're trying to figure it out."

Back across the street at the HarborCenter, there's no evidence of soul-crushing losses, but rather beaming smiles on the face of kids on the ice. They're honing their skills in a brand-new facility.

You've got former NHLers Kevyn Adams, Adam Mair and Martin Biron (goalie coach) at the kids' disposal in the HaborCenter's Academy of Hockey.

"We really wanted to do something special for young players in the region, provide players an opportunity to really develop their skills," said Adams, the academy's director and vice president. "But not just limit it there, but have this place become, over time, a global destination for players and coaches to come and learn and train."

In this particular week, there's a team of 12-year-olds from Moscow Dynamo at the HarborCenter complex.

Adams has a vision for what this place can do.

"Our expectation is that some players that are in the NHL 20 years from now will have come through the doors of HarborCenter in some capacity," said Adams, a Stanley Cup champion with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. "That is where I see the opportunity. It's going to bring people to Buffalo."

"Now you see the city coming alive. Everything is starting to take off. [The Pegulas have] been instrumental in the revival of the city."

Now it just needs the revival of the team.

Murray, for one, thinks the Sabres can turn this around sooner rather than later.

"I'm optimistic that we can do it quicker than some people think," the Sabres GM said.

"It won't be forever," Black said of the rebuild.

"But it's not a quick fix. It requires patience. And fans and society in general today isn't wired for patience and deliberation. I think our fans are exceptionally smart with a very high hockey IQ. I think they've seen the consequences of rebuilding a little bit, but at the same time going for it. Those worlds don't mesh together. I think they understand the methodology. I think they have giant faith in Terry's commitment."

Black gazed out the window in the Tim Hortons and pointed to the revitalized downtown area.

The HarborCenter just hosted the world under-18 IIHF women's hockey championship and in June will, for the first time, host the NHL's draft combine.

Things are happening here. Black envisions one day when the business side and the NHL team will mesh into one incredibly successful venture, when Buffalo will be a place of envy.

"We're going to get to the point on the ice, and we're closely approaching the point off the ice, where we're not going to be on anyone's no-trade list," the Sabres president said. "We want to be the place where people want to come because it's a fantastic off-ice experience. The fans here are second to none. The quality of life here is second to none. And on ice, is it going to be the place where people will come to win a championship? It starts with the Pegulas. Teams that win championships, it rarely happens with detached ownership. It has to mean something. The Pegulas are all-in. Everything they do is about winning a championship and changing a city. If we do one without the other, it's a failure."

In the meantime, the Sabres' rebuild continues, as does the losing.

"Short term, it can be tough," Black said. "It takes a toll on everyone, on fans, on players especially, the owners, the media. But there's going to be a payoff. It's going to happen."