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Sabres are finally starting to get with the times

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When I was a kid growing up first getting into hockey around 2008, the Buffalo Sabres had just lost their two franchise players — Danny Briere and Chris Drury — in free agency. To make matters worse, the Sabres had to bend over backwards just to hold on to Thomas Vanek, who received an offer sheet from Edmonton. But even after losing Briere and Drury, the Sabres remained relevant for the next few years. Though the Sabres lacked a true star skater, the team had so much depth it was able to perform — maybe slightly above its individual talent level would suggest it should.

For the few years both before and after Briere and Drury’s departure, the Sabres were both fast and smart, which led to a large part of the team’s success in the mid-to-late 2000s. But ever since 2010, the team has sunk into mediocrity and lower, as I’m sure most of us know. The Sabres lost their depth, their talent, and mainly their speed.

The NHL is a copycat league. This isn’t a secret. Most sports leagues are in some ways, but whenever we see someone win a Stanley Cup in the NHL, we see the other 30 teams in the league think “How can we become like them over the course of this off-season?”

When the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Cup, teams started to shift their philosophy. The Blackhawks, of course, had immeasurable skill, between Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but they were a bigger, more defensively focused team, led by guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Dustin Byfuglien.

So what happened after that? Not only did the Blackhawks win two more cups with similar styles, but the heavyweight Bruins and Kings mixed some championships in there, too.

Despite the Blackhawks winning the Cup again in 2015, that’s when things started to change with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning are fast paced, skill based high-flyers, and since then, teams like the Blackhawks haven’t done a lot in the playoffs. In their departure, we’ve seen teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals take home the Cup. We saw the San Jose Sharks — led by a defenseman who had 80 points in Brent Burns — make the Final, and we saw a team that didn’t exist make the Final in their first year in the Vegas Golden Knights because they hand-built their team with players other teams slept on.

Who were those guys? Fast, skilled, smaller forwards who drove possession and had good underlying analytics. Sure, you can look at this past year’s Final, the Blues and Bruins — two pretty heavyweight teams in their own right. But those teams are more skill-based than they appear, with their best players — like Brad Marchand or Ryan O’Reilly — being high scoring and quick, but also gritty and effective.

So how does this all relate to the Sabres? They’re finally starting to catch up to the times.

During the end of Darcy Regier’s tenure, the Sabres were still trying to be the big, heavy, slow team, when the league was in its infancy of starting to change. Then Tim Murray walked in.

I’m in the minority of thinking Murray did a lot of things right. He wasn’t afraid to take risks, and he was a little ahead of his time. The Sabres organization needed players like O’Reilly and Evander Kane, both smart, two-way hockey players who are also big scorers. Did those trades work? Not necessarily, but they were the kinds of players the team needs now, and needed then too.

Over the past few years, it has frustrated me to watch all of these other teams go out and adjust. We saw New Jersey prey on an ancient-thinking general manager in Edmonton, stealing Taylor Hall for almost nothing. We also saw the Predators trade their captain and franchise face Shea Weber for a much younger, flashier P.K. Subban — and those are just the big signings. There are much smaller signings and acquisitions that have gone into every other Stanley Cup Final team.

But now, the Sabres are starting to get it.

By acquiring Colin Miller and Marcus Johansson, the Sabres are bringing in guys who not only have the intangibles and the winning pedigree, but they are also the guys who make up the modern day NHL. They won’t blow you away on the stat sheet, but they’re smart, fast and they drive possession. Boston likely wouldn’t have made the Final this season without adding Johansson and Charlie Coyle. It’s come a long way from bringing in the Ville Leinos of the world. In fact, the Sabres have come a long way even from last off-season, in that they aren’t looking for the Vladimir Sobotkas to fill their third line, they’re looking for actual quality third-liners.

The Sabres off-season has given me a lot of hope. Are they done yet? No, they still need a little more help up front. But the hope came a little bit last off-season in trading for Jeff Skinner, and has just grown more bringing in Johansson and Miller. With Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin and Sam Reinhart leading the way, with quality depth pieces in place, it’s looking a lot better in Buffalo. The added desire to phase out the old style players like Marco Scandella and Sobotka make my optimism even higher. The Sabres really are setting up to be a quality NHL team. It just may have taken them a bit longer to get there.

Anthony Dolce is an OBSERVER Sports Reporter. Comments on this article can be sent to adolce@observertoday.com

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