Though many fans didn’t expect it, the Buffalo Sabres have come out to be one of the best teams in the NHL so far this season. What can the New York Rangers learn from their well-executed rebuild?
Last year, the Buffalo Sabres were at an all-time low. They were the first team in NHL history to land in 31st place, with the addition of the Vegas Golden Knights as the 31st team last season.
The team had a total of 62 points and a record of 25-45-12 during the 2017-2018 season, only winning consecutive games four times throughout the season and not reaching their 16th win until February 10th. This year, things have changed quite a bit.
The Sabres’ current record is 21-12-6, putting them four wins away from matching their total from last season. They sit in third place in the Atlantic Division, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and seventh place in the league.
But, how did this team get to where they are now? We took a look at how the Buffalo Sabres rebuilt their team and rose from last place to one of the top spots in the league.
Furthermore, we asked ourselves, could the New York Rangers replicate this? We analyzed the steps the Sabres took and how the Rangers could mirror them. Sure, it’s easy to say that the Sabres improved because they drafted Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, but it’s much more than that.
Establishing a locker room atmosphere
One of the most important elements of Buffalo’s rebuild was the fact that everyone in the locker room was on the same wavelength. Ryan O’Reilly, one of the team’s former alternate captain, expressed last year that there was a “losing mentality” with the Sabres last season.
Phil Housley, the team’s head coach, had a series of discussions with his players and staff over the summer about change, commitment, concerns, and complaints. He emphasized that the players’ dedication “started with [their] leadership group leading in the right way.”
Kyle Okposo, one of the alternate captains of the team, agreed, saying that “it’s pretty powerful what you can do if you get everybody on the same page, and people are willing to admit what they have to do to be better and then actually do it…it feels like a team. It’s pretty amazing.”
Once the locker room atmosphere was established throughout the organization, the Sabres’ front office decided to start making the team better through a series of trades and one player’s promotion.
(Quotes via Democrat & Chronicle)
Making trades and choosing leaders
Over the summer, the Buffalo Sabres traded disgruntled forward Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues, and Buffalo definitely brought in a haul for one of their best players. St. Louis sent a 2019 first round pick, a 2021 second round pick, highly-touted prospect Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, and Patrik Berglund.
While Berglund hasn’t panned out, Sobotka has been about as expected, the picks will be valuable, and Tage Thompson will be a great asset in a few years. With all of those picks in hand, the Sabres also traded a conditional 2019 fourth-round pick (that could become to a third-rounder) to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick.
Sheary has been a valuable part of the team thus far, but Buffalo has not seen much of Hunwick yet. Finally, the last big trade that the Sabres made was with the Carolina Hurricanes, getting league-wide superstar Jeff Skinner, while only losing prospect Cliff Pu, a second-round draft selection in 2019, and third and sixth-round picks in 2020.
Skinner has worked out wonderfully for Buffalo, averaging exactly a point per game thus far with 39 points in 39 games (26 goals and 13 assists), already close to matching or eclipsing career highs in both categories. Skinner is also third in the NHL for goals at the moment and is just outside the top 30 for points. Acquiring Skinner is a perfect example of the trade for a future unrestricted free agent working out very well.
Finally, the team named former second overall pick Jack Eichel as their captain and put this year’s number one overall pick Rasmus Dahlin on their roster. Eichel has excelled and Dahlin has lived up to the hype. Both of these were moves that make a statement and make the future of the team clear.
What can the Rangers learn from this?
So, now that we know how Buffalo was able to accelerate their rebuild, how can the New York Rangers do the same thing?
The first step to take is establishing the locker room atmosphere and making sure everyone involved in the organization knows what is happening. The Rangers began this last year with “The Letter”, basically announcing to the franchise and the fans that they will be rebuilding and that they need to lower their expectations.
It also seems that the players know where they stand, with quotes periodically surfacing about knowing that no one is safe from being dealt. New York has already begun to execute Buffalo’s second step but must take it to the next level to achieve the amount of success that the Sabres have.
The Rangers have started to trade some of their players with higher value and receive assets that will be more valuable in the future. We see this in (arguably) the Derek Stepan/Antti Raanta trade with Arizona (received a pick and prospect), sending Nick Holden/Rick Nash to Boston (received picks and prospects and a roster player they flipped in another trade), and shipping Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller to the Tampa Bay Lightning (received a roster player, a prospect who became a roster player, a prospect, and a pick).
To complete this process, the New York Rangers should follow in the Buffalo Sabres’ footsteps and not be afraid to continue to make those big moves. Trading players like Mats Zuccarello and/or Kevin Hayes may be part of that process.
Buffalo went all in on their rebuild and got amazing results. If the Rangers want to come out just as strong, they might benefit from studying Buffalo’s recent moves.