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A Tale of Two Cities

July 14, 2022, 6:40 PM ET [1779 Comments]
Hank Balling
Buffalo Sabres Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...

- Charles Dickens

The NHL free agency period is now 36 hours old and Sabres fans are still digesting what the modest-but-intriguing additions of Ilya Lyubushkin and Eric Comrie could mean for the fate of the 2022-23 season ahead when combined with the team's stable of young colts. That is to say, in the words of Charles Dickens, fans are still deciding whether this is the season of light, or the season of darkness; whether the Sabres are in the spring of hope with these young-but-unproven players, or whether they’re still mired in the 11-year-long playoff drought winter of despair.

Are fans heading toward Hockey Heaven or are they heading the opposite direction?

Meanwhile, 240 miles across the fourth-largest Great Lake as the crow flies, on the banks of the Detroit River where Lake Saint Clair empties into Lake Erie, Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings are facing many of the same questions as Kevyn Adams and the Buffalo Sabres.

The similarities between the two cities and teams are striking. Both rust-belt metropolitan areas formerly known as heavy industrial manufacturing towns are plotting a course to reinvent themselves in the image of technology-based, 21st century commerce. Both teams – formerly successful in their own right to varying degrees – are attempting to dig themselves out of stagnation and failure, not unlike the period of economic devastation following the collapse of the iron and steel industries that once defined the cities in which the franchises reside. The Red Wings last made the playoffs in 2016, and the Sabres last made the dance in 2011. To say it’s been a while since these teams have had something worth cheering for would be an understatement.

Detroit and Buffalo finished the most recent 2021-22 campaign within one point of each other; the Red Wings had 74 points and the Sabres had 75 which left both franchises 26 points and 25 points short of a post-season berth, respectively. The teams are young, though, and that gives a fan base reason for hope. The Sabres were the 8th youngest team with an average age of 26.54 years old while the Red Wings were the 17th youngest team at 27.23 years old.

And while both teams are eager to turn the page on this era of failure, the question as to how to achieve the goal of reinventing a franchise as a successful one is where the two teams diverge.

Yzerman and company ran into free agency head first by signing center Andrew Copp to a five-year, $5.625M AAV contract. They also signed Olli Määttä to a one-year, $2.25M AAV contract, David Perron to a two-year, $4.75M AAV deal, Ben Chiarot to a four-year agreement forth $4.75m AAV, Dominik Kubalik to a two-year, $2.5M AAV compact, and they traded for goaltender Ville Husso and then gave the Finnish netminder a three-year deal worth $4.75 million per season. Lastly, they signed old friend Mark Pysyk to a one-year, $850,000 agreement.

Yzerman saw that his team was lacking in talent and decided to make a strong push in free agency in order to bolster his group. He also spent a lot of money, and perhaps these pieces will only be band-aids on a roster that had around the same level of talent as the one opposite them on the eastern shore of Lake Erie. Or perhaps he has created a critical mass or talent that can now seriously contend for the post-season and beyond.

The Sabres, meanwhile, had a quiet day as they signed the aforementioned Lyubushkin and Comrie to modest two-year deals in order to bridge the current talent gap until they can fill the roster with players they have drafted and developed. During his day-ending press conference yesterday, Adams reiterated his talking point that the organization does not want to block their own young players from receiving ice time.

“We felt very strongly a year ago that we were going to put ourselves in a position to identify a young core, and really let them develop, and grow, and learn,” Adams said. “We took steps in that this year. Now you fast forward to this summer, and a key piece to this for me is to make sure we’re doing everything we can to help our own players get better”

As for whether it matters to him that other divisional rivals seemingly improved their roster more than the Sabres on day one of free agency?

“What other teams do, or how they do it? You know, everyone’s in a different spot, but for us, we believe in this team, we believe in the players we have here, and we want to make sure we don’t get in the way of our own players’ development.”

It’s clear that the Adams-led Sabres aren’t interested in adding any meaningful, proven veteran players, although it’s also fair to wonder if that’s at least partially due to the fact that free agents probably have limited interest in joining a team that is still mired in a league-record 11-year playoff drought. It’s an easy selling point for Adams to paint those useful players who aren’t interested in joining the franchise as non-believers, as heretics who aren’t sufficiently of the “want-to-be-here” variety.

Or maybe he truly believes that his plan to draft and develop players is the way to create a team that is successful and sustainable in the long run, and that adding proven players now will limit the growth of his promising cadre of prospects.

The vastly different approaches of these two similar franchises will be an interesting experiment to watch as we find out whether supplementing a team with proven commodities is a help or a hindrance. Perhaps these acquisitions blow up on Yzerman and Adams is proven right by his patient approach, but if Detroit passes Buffalo this season and manages to make the post-season dance, it will be a tough sell for Adams to preach patience again next season, should the Sabres continue their streak of futility.

Eventually results matter.
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