NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.
Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray set the bar at his season-ending news conference in April while evaluating the NHL's worst team in 2013-14. On the job for three months, Murray made it clear that change was coming — and lots of it.
"A lot of nights, this team was hard to watch," Murray said.
It wasn't pretty. Coach Ron Rolston and GM Darcy Regier were fired following a franchise-worst 4-15-1 start. The Sabres finished last in wins (21) and points (52) and their 150 non-shootout goals was the lowest total in the expansion era. Following what he called a "completely unacceptable" season, Murray refused to buy into a five-year rebuild and accelerated the Sabres' reconstruction with the signing of five free agents on July 1.
"Probably the best couple of words I heard out of Tim's mouth was when he said 'five years,'" said Ted Nolan, who went 17-36-9 after taking over as interim coach and signed a three-year contract extension in March. "Who knows what's going to happen five years from now? I always, as a coach, just worry about now. My now is preparing this team to be the best we can. If we get the players like we did this summer, it could be a very short rebuild and we get to the point to where we're battling for what everybody wants, and that's the Stanley Cup."
It may not be easy, but a Stanley Cup Playoff spot isn't impossible. Look no further than the Colorado Avalanche, who last season improved from the League's second-worst record to the third-best and a Central Division title. Murray's aggressive approach made a believer of forward Chris Stewart, one of the first rebuilding chips acquired in the Ryan Miller trade, who feels the playoffs are "a very, very realistic goal for us."
"I think on paper right now there's no doubt in my mind that we're a playoff-bound team," Stewart said. "We have some good players who are ready to take a step in the right direction and start leading. I think July 1st we took a big leap in the right direction and I think we'll be a team that definitely surprises some teams next year."
An overhaul that began last season with trades of Thomas Vanek, Miller, Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick and Steve Ott continued with compliance buyouts for forward Ville Leino and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and the selection of potential franchise center Sam Reinhart with the No. 2 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
SABRES' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
2013-14 record: 21-51-10, 52 points, 8th in Atlantic Division, 16th in Eastern Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Did not qualify
Additions: F Matt Moulson, F Brian Gionta, D Andrej Meszaros, D Josh Gorges, F Cody McCormick, F Zac Dalpe, D Tyson Strachan, F Jordan Samuels-Thomas, D Andre Benoit
Subtractions: D Christian Ehrhoff, F Ville Leino, F Cory Conacher, F John Scott
Pending free agents: F Zenon Konopka (UFA), D Henrik Tallinder (UFA), D Jamie McBain (UFA)
Promotion candidates: C Sam Reinhart, RW Joel Armia, C Mikhail Grigorenko, D Chad Ruhwedel, D Mark Pysyk, D Nikita Zadorov, D Rasmus Ristolainen
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: C Sam Reinhart (No. 2), LW Brendan Lemieux (No. 31)
Once the clock struck noon on July 1, Murray went to work by giving Rochester native Brian Gionta a three-year, $12.75 million contract. Moulson (five years, $25 million) and McCormick (three years, $4.5 million) returned after they were traded to the Minnesota Wild at the NHL Trade Deadline. Forward Marcus Foligno (two years, $3.75 million) re-signed, and Murray added depth to the blue line by signing Andrej Meszaros (one year, $4.125 million) and acquiring Josh Gorges from the Montreal Canadiens for a second-round pick in 2016.
Later in July, leading goal scorer and top center Tyler Ennis re-signed for five years and $23 million and defenseman Andre Benoit agreed to a one-year, $800,000 contract. The flurry of activity showed there was something appealing about Buffalo and Nolan's program.
"The one thing I always try to do is create an environment where people can flourish, can grow and feel wanted," Nolan said. "There's nothing in the world [better] than feeling wanted, to be a part of something special. There's a lot of good [reasons] why people want to play in Buffalo, and I'm just glad that we're in a creative environment."
The veteran acquisitions will provide leadership to a young core that has potential at the center position with Ennis, Reinhart, Cody Hodgson and Zemgus Girgensons, along with promising defensemen Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe.
"We added some guys that are older and have been proven leaders around the League, and we're excited about that," Ennis told WGR radio in Buffalo. "Me and [defenseman Tyler Myers] and a couple of other guys are growing up a bit. It's time for us to take over now. It's a good balance of older guys, middle guys ready to take over and a lot of great, young kids coming up."
Nolan will get to experience the fruits of Murray's labor for a full season and beyond. Stewart's declaration aside, the playoffs may be a longshot, but the Sabres aren't waiting five years to make a statement.
"It's going to take some time to adjust the culture, to adjust the way we've prepared and the way we play," Nolan said. "The one good thing now is we have a tremendous amount of young, talented players and we brought in some good character players with leadership skills. You add those two components together, it's usually a good mix.
"There's only one way to go: up. Finishing 30th twice in a row is probably not going to be expected."