As the Buffalo Sabres vie for another last-place finish, fans have openly speculated as to whether or not the 2017-18 roster is actually worse than the infamous “tank” team from 2014-15. Somehow, the Sabres could finish with fewer points than a team that Tim Murray designed with the intent of finishing dead last.
Say what you will about Ted Nolan’s band of misfits, and despite that their fans rooted against them, they always put forth a solid effort on the ice. What did it do for their careers? Here’s a look at the playing status of some tank-era Sabres you may have forgotten about.
Salvaged NHL Careers
Though a vast majority of the Sabres’ tank roster wouldn’t have cracked the lineup of any other team at the time, a few players have actually moved on to become NHL regulars.
While young skaters like Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, and Tyler Myers are still excellent contributors in the NHL, a few fringe players and elder statesmen from the 2014-15 squad managed to recover from having their names stamped on that abysmal campaign.
In one of the few deals Murray orchestrated that favored the Sabres, the truculent general manager sent Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Torry Mitchell and two second-round picks. Mitchell would serve admirably during his 51 game stint in Buffalo. So admirably in fact, that Murray decided he was a threat to the tank and sent the journeyman forward to the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline.
Since then, Mitchell has carved out a bottom-six niche for himself in the NHL. In fact, he spent two full seasons with the Habs before being traded to the Los Angeles Kings in November. In the 205 games he has played since his merciful exile from Western New York, he has posted 46 points while serving primarily as a penalty-kill specialist.
Another surprising player who has made a name for himself is Tim Schaller. Following the 2014-15 season, the young centerman stayed with the organization for another year before signing with the Boston Bruins in 2016.
In 57 games this season, the 27-year-old has 17 points and has established himself as a regular on the Bruins’ top penalty-killing unit. As the team gears up for a deep playoff run, Schaller will serve as a vital depth piece though he has only played in a total of six postseason contests in his career.
One of the bigger names on this list, Stewart, miraculously, salvaged his career following a terrible performance in Buffalo. Throughout the 2014-15 campaign, Stewart vocalized his disgust at the notion that his team was designed to lose games and placed a great deal of blame on himself for the Sabres’ struggles.
As the main piece coming back in a package deal for star goaltender, Ryan Miller, there was a great deal of pressure on Stewart to prove his worth. After posting a career-low 25 points in 61 games with the Sabres, Stewart became yet another one of Murray’s deadline cast-offs and was shipped to the Minnesota Wild.
He has since kept his head above water, serving in a bottom-six role with the Anaheim Ducks in 2015-16 before returning to Minnesota where he is under contract.
In an interview with Bill Hoppe last season, Stewart reflected fondly on his time in Buffalo despite having the worst statistical output of his career.
“I liked Buffalo,” he said. “My kids were born here. I lived here in the offseason. Great relationships. The trainers were great. The ownership was great. It was honestly one of the classiest organizations that I played for.”
Big League Dropouts
Here’s where things get interesting. Most avid hockey fans are familiar with the careers of Mitchell, Schaller, and Stewart, but what about the guys who were relegated to the minor leagues? Here are some players you might remember and some you might not who are still contributing in the AHL.
Goaltender Anders Lindback’s arrival in Buffalo illustrated the nature and essence of Murray’s plan. In what was perhaps the tank-iest move of that season, the former GM attempted to sabotage his goaltending tandem prior to the trade deadline by trading both Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth.
The Sabres’ goaltenders had been performing at a high level that entire season and with the Arizona Coyotes hot on their tail in the race to last-place, something had to be done.
As part of the deal that sent Enroth to the Dallas Stars, the Sabres acquired Lindback and a conditional draft pick. In the 10 games Lindback started for the Stars, he had a 2-8-0 record with a career-low .875 save percentage.
Following a very brief tenure with the Coyotes the following season, Lindback made a pit stop in his home country of Sweden, starting 23 games for Rogle BK of the SHL. This past summer, he brought his talents back to North America, signing a two-way deal with the Nashville Predators. In 40 games with their AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, he has struggled, posting a 2.95 GAA and a .905 save percentage.
Veteran defenseman Andre Benoit has been all over the place following a one-year stint in Buffalo where he registered 20 points in 59 games. After his contract expired with the Sabres, the 34-year-old signed a one-year, two-way contract with the St. Louis Blues before heading overseas for a brief stint in the SHL with the Malmo Redhawks.
Similar to Lindback, Benoit has since returned to the AHL where he has split time this season between the Cleveland Monsters and Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Forward Phil Varone only dressed in 28 games for the Sabres in 2014-15. After scoring contributors like Stewart and Mitchell were sent off at the deadline, Varone was recalled from Rochester to fill the void. Following the tank, he would spend the early portion of the 2015-16 season with the Amerks until he was traded to Ottawa in a minor league transaction.
#LVPhantoms forward Phil Varone hit the back of the net three times tonight to record the team’s second hat trick this season. In the process he extended his point – and goal – streak to four games with 8 points (6G-2A). He also now leads @TheAHL in points with 55 this season. pic.twitter.com/mttMh2xSCS
— LehighValleyPhantoms (@LVPhantoms) February 22, 2018
Varone only played in eight NHL games over three seasons in the Senators’ system and now plays for the Philadelphia Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. Producing at over a point-per-game pace, he leads the AHL with 55 points in 54 games.
Quintessential 13th forward, Brian Flynn rounds out the list of current AHL contributors. Surprisingly enough, he actually posted a career-best 17 points in 54 games with the Sabres in 2014-15, earning himself a place on the Montreal Canadiens roster the following season.
After posting back-to-back 10 point campaigns during a two-year stint in Montreal, he signed a two-way contract with the Dallas Stars this past summer. He now plays for their AHL affiliate where he has posted 31 points in 46 games.
Banished to Eastern Europe
On a team full of glaring weaknesses, the Sabres’ defense was at the forefront of their ineptitude. In fact, half of the team’s blueliners from the 2014-15 season were forced to continue their careers overseas. While a few of them remain somewhat relevant in the upper-echelon European leagues, others have been exiled further down the pecking order.
No recantation of the tank-era Sabres is complete without paying tribute to Mike Weber. Deservedly or not, the hard-nosed blueliner received his fair share of criticism for frequent mental lapses in his own end.
After a promising debut as a 21-year-old, Weber never fully reached his potential, though his effort was rarely called into question. In what was perhaps the only fleecing during his tenure in Buffalo, Murray somehow managed to convince the Washington Capitals to give up a third-round pick for the fringe defenseman.
Weber finished the 2015-16 season with the Capitals before committing the worst on-ice gaffe of his career in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semi-final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In a move that Sabres fans were all too familiar with, he misplayed the puck in his own end allowing Patric Hornqvist to score the game-winning goal in overtime.
That would be the end of his NHL career. Weber now plays in Sweden for Frolunda HC of the SHL.
Defenseman Andrej Meszaros also made his way across the pond. Immediately following his one-year stint in Western New York, Meszaros bolted for the KHL where he has spent the last three seasons. Once a viable power-play quarterback, he has struggled to regain his offensive prowess in Europe posting a paltry 37 points in 112 games.
Now in the twilight of his career, the 32-year-old plays for Bratislava Slovan in his home country of Slovakia.
Strachan’s path to Europe was rather obscure. After a less than impressive stint with the Sabres, the then 31-year-old signed a two-way contract with Minnesota where he only appeared in two games during the 2015-16 season.
The following summer, Strachan signed a minor league deal to re-join the Sabres organization in Rochester. After the team opted to let him become an unrestricted free agent last summer, he elected to continue his career overseas. Interestingly enough, the veteran blueliner didn’t join the KHL or SHL like many of his contemporaries. Instead, he signed a contract with the Cardiff Devils of the EIHL where he has posted 12 points in 40 games this season.
Goaltender Jhonas Enroth was one of the few bright spots during one of the ugliest seasons in team history. Fans fell in love with the scrappy 5-foot-10 Swedish netminder, though his solid play that season put the Sabres’ draft lottery chances at risk. As expected, Murray sent him packing after striking a deal with the Stars (the same trade that brought Lindback to Buffalo).
Since then, Enroth has been all over the place. He finished the 2014-15 campaign with former Sabres head coach, Lindy Ruff in Dallas and then spent the next two seasons in Los Angeles and Toronto respectively.
After bouncing around the AHL in 2016-17, Enroth inked a deal with Minsk Dynamo of the KHL last summer where he serves as the starting goaltender. In 51 games, the 29-year-old has posted a 2.04 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
While we’re on the topic of goalies, we would be remiss not to check in with Matt Hackett. As mentioned, the solid play of the Sabres goaltenders was jeopardizing the tank. With the Coyotes breathing down the Sabres’ necks, Murray had no choice but to start the struggling netminder for five games to close out the season.
The 25-year-old was plucked from the Amerks bench and thrown into the starting lineup, posting a 4.32 GAA and a .884 save percentage to lock the Sabres in last place.
If the circumstances weren’t brutal enough, Hackett was forced take his talents to the ever-prestigious Slovak Extraliga where he serves as the starting netminder for Detva HC. With a .904 GAA this season, his performance in what most would consider a European B-League is still unimpressive.
The Tank in Retrospect
While many fans look back in disgust at one of the worst teams in Sabres franchise history, supporters of the blue and gold hold no ill will against these men. They served their purpose. “Consolation prize” Jack Eichel is a Sabre for the next eight years and is the lone bright spot in a season that has disappointed even the most pessimistic fans.
The 2017-18 Sabres have the look of a sluggish, entitled squad. While on paper they are more talented than the warriors of the tank, they haven’t played with half of the heart. Say what you will about how embarrassing and shameful the 2014-15 season was from a management standpoint, but Nolan’s team skated with fire in their belly every night.
It’s nice to see so many of them still playing professional hockey, NHL or otherwise.