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Open Mike: Sabres president gives insight into team, locally

While many in attendance at the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Friday (Oct. 24) at Armor Inn were business owners and town constituents, they, like many fans in Buffalo, seemed just as desperate for answers to the Sabres’ recent seasons woes, which includes the league’s slowest start to the 2013 – 2014 season.

To the credit of Buffalo Sabres President Ted Black, the keynote speaker at the event, he was willing to answer each and every question and gave an open and honest discussion about mistakes the Sabres have made, since owner Terry Pegula took over the team 3 1/2 years ago, and the direction the organization is headed.

He came around to greet everyone in attendance, right before he spoke, and then joked, when he first got up to the podium, that nobody’s thrown anything at him yet, so he should be OK through the discussion.

In the offseason prior to 2011 – 2012, coming of a division-winning year but bowing out in the first round of the playoffs, Black said that, while rebuilding was an option, the organization instead decided to make a big splash and go for making a run at the Stanley Cup. The Buffalo Sabres signed high-priced free agents like Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff and traded for Robyn Regehr. But the team severely underachieved that season and then missed the playoffs again, during a strike-shortened season, last year.

“We took a huge swing and missed,” Black admitted. “But I’m glad we did it. It was a good learning experience. It was a reminder of that’s not how you win a championship.”

Black said that acquiring talent through the draft should have been the direction the organization took. For more than a year, that has been the focus of the Sabres, who are now trying to “hoard” first, second and third round picks. With the trade of Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders on Sunday for three-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson and, maybe more importantly, a first round pick in 2014 and second round pick the next year, the Sabres now have 17 first or second round picks from 2012 through 2015.

Black pointed out that the organization is now being guided by data showing that 70 percent of goals scored in the NHL come from first or second round picks. “In today’s NHL, the foundation of a championship team has to come through the draft,” Black noted.

And he would know, having overseen the revival of the Pittsburgh Penguins from a bottom-feeding team for years to one with the likes of drafted stars Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But that was a long and dreadful process, which Sabres fans would not be too keen on going through. “We’re going to get there,” Black said. “I’ve seen darker times [in Pittsburgh] and we came out of it.”

To do it, the Sabres are going to have to peel off many of their best players, Black said. Buffalo has already traded Paul Gaustad, Jason Pominville and now, Vanek, and there promises to be more to come. Goaltender Ryan Miller is in the last year of his contract and rumored to be next on the move.

The Sabres now have the youngest team in the league. They’ve had four teenagers dressed for a game at one time. But what seemed to pain Black the most was the under-performing of highly-paid veterans the team has been counting on, since attempting to make that big splash.

“We’re not trying to lose; winning begets winning,” Black said. “But when your team is the youngest in the league, you’re going to have these mistakes. We still have veterans’ not performing to their handicap and that can be very frustrating.”

Black said the woes of this season won’t dissuade him or the Sabres franchise from getting out in the community, and for him to conduct a discussion like he did in Hamburg last week. He noted that, not only in sports, but also in business and life, you don’t find success without some disappointments. The Sabres are going through their share of those, but Black said the organization will push forward.

“I know there’s a light at the end of this tunnel,” Black said. “If we’re successful, it will be a very bright light.”

Though the Cup Pegula once said was the reason for the Sabres’ existence is now a far off aspiration, Black is not shying away from a frank discussion about the team. And that transparency, alone, should give Sabres’ fans some hope for the future.
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