Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Will the Sabres current rebuild end like their Scotty Bowman-led 80's rebuild?

It's no wonder that Canadiens fans are concerned about the arms race happening in Buffalo right now.  They're going scorched earth, but they've been divesting themselves of assets since the 2012 season, dealing Paul Gaustad to the Predators for a first-round pick.  In a couple of seasons they've amassed blue-chippers like Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov.  I'm told players in their pipeline like Jake McCabe, Joel Armia, Johan Larsson and JT Compher are quality prospects.  I had man-crushes on Nick Baptiste, Justin Bailey, William Carrier and Hudson Fasching before last season's draft, and the Sabres somehow drafted or traded for all of them.

In the next two seasons, the Sabres have a bewildering number of picks or conditional picks in the first and second rounds, so they'll add more prospects to their gushing pipeline.

So yeah, I worry.  Two big centres, two huge defencemen who can move and play, a panoply of players who'll mature together and hit the bigs roughly at the same time.  

About the only thing that comforts me is that the Sabres have done this before in the early eighties, when Scotty Bowman left Montréal and took over in Buffalo, assuming the GM-Coach role.  He set out to rebuild what had been a powerhouse team in the seventies, featuring the immortal French Connection line of Richard Martin, Gilbert Perreault and René Robert, All-Star defencemen Jerry Korab and Jim Schoenfeld, nifty scorer Danny Gare, superb defensive forwards Don Luce and Craig Ramsay, and the goaltendending duo of Robert Sauvé and Don Edwards, at the time arguably the best tandem in the league.

Scotty Bowman is now seen as a semi-retired legendary coach who benignly opines on various shows about the state of the game, he's almost cherubic in his manner and demeanor, but at the time he was thought of as a cold, acerbic tyrant who rode his teams hard and didn't mind stepping on toes or bruising egos.  He left Montréal with a chip on his shoulder, irked at having been bypassed for the GM role, which Sam Pollock had bestowed on his assistant Irving Grundman.  While this is rightly seen as a monumental blunder, Mr. Grundman frittering away a lot of the depth and strength of the organization in disastrous trades, the alternative may not have been better, according to then-Vice President Jean Béliveau among others, who explained that after tough losses Mr. Bowman regularly had to be talked down from the ledge.  If he had been in charge, they feared he'd ride half the team out of town in a huff.

In any case, Scotty wheeled and dealed when he got to Buffalo and amassed a bunch of picks for the 1982 and 1983 drafts.  He picked up Phil Housley, Paul Cyr and Dave Andreychuck in the first round, plus two more players in the second round in '82.  The next year, he snapped up Tom Barrasso, Normand Lacombe and Adam Creighton, and another couple of players in the second round.

As a teenager who was already nerding out on the draft, I was petrified.  While the Canadiens were losing Hall of Famers through trades and retirement, the Sabres were picking up sure-fire All-Stars.  The one that really stung was Normand Lacombe, for some reason I really wanted that guy on the Canadiens, a local Pierrefonds boy who'd gone the U.S. College route instead of the LHJMQ, which was unheard of.  I knew there was no chance we'd get a shot at Pat Lafontaine from the Verdun Juniors or Sylvain Turgeon of the Hull Olympiques, those record scorers would be long gone by the time we picked, but maybe Normand Lacombe might last, or heck, maybe even defenceman Bobby Dollas, who had great seasons playing with Mario Lemieux on the Laval Voisins.  

But no, our now-nemesis Scotty Bowman snagged Mr. Lacombe tenth overall, and Mr. Dollas was also gone, to the Jets, so we picked Alfie Turcotte at 17, and I instantly hated the pick.  It wasn't just his stupid moonpie face staring back at me from the sports page of La Presse, or his 26-goal season as a Winterhawk, or the fact that he stood 5'9" but wasn't a Cournoyer-like speedster, but rather more of a playmaker, it was really just his stupid, stupid name.  A wasted pick, I decided instantly, and this was confirmed when he showed up to camp doughy and out of shape, and he offered the feeble excuse that he thought he should 'bulk up' to play in the NHL.

Of course, I was ecstatic that we got Claude Lemieux and Sergio Momesso in the second round, those two were always described in glowing terms for their offence and their toughness in the daily LHJMQ reports on CKAC.  That season, all the focus was on the scoring race between Pat Lafontaine, Sylvain Turgeon and youngster Mario Lemieux, but Sergio and Claude were just a tier below in quality, I thought.  Anyway, I hoped that the latter two would help withstand the onslaught of these new Sabres who were now loaded for bear and would rampage through the Adams Division.  

Turns out that while Tom Barrasso and Phil Housley were every bit as good as advertised, and Dave Andreychuck ended up having a terrific career, the Sabres themselves never made it out of the Adams Division in the playoffs for the next decade or so.  They were talented, always thought to be a team on the brink of taking the next step and going deep in the playoffs, but it never panned out for this group, for whatever reason.  

So that's the hope I'm clinging to, not that the Sabres are cursed or anything, just that maybe a team purposefully losing and stockpiling draft picks and hoping for it to turn out isn't a guaranteed recipe for success as was shown a few decades ago in Buffalo.  Now if only there was a more current example of this...

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