Prior to their 6-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, the Buffalo Sabres had scored 24 goals in 18 games, while conceding 65. That’s a minus-41 goal differential, worst in the NHL by a mile (Columbus is next with a relatively paltry -17). Even after Tuesday night’s victory – two in a row! – over San Jose, they just had five wins and 12 points, both league lows.
This is nothing new. Last year, the Sabres had 21 wins and 52 points, finishing 14 points below perennial punchline the Florida Panthers and 40 points out of the final playoff spot in the East. But this season, they’re on pace to be even worse. At their current rate, Buffalo might even surpass the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers, an expansion team that garnered just 39 points in a year when the NHL began awarding the much-derided “loser point” to teams that made it to overtime.
(Sadly, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals all-time worst mark of 21 points seems safe, though the Sabres might challenge that same Caps team’s historic -265 goal differential.)
The Sabres are so bad you can’t help but wonder if there’s an ulterior motive at work here, some intent behind their incompetence. Because there probably is: With the NHL headed toward one of the deepest drafts in recent memory – and with the top two projected picks, junior wunderkind Connor McDavid and Boston University freshman Jack Eichel, considered locks for superstardom – it would certainly appear that Buffalo is in full-on tank mode, no matter what their players say.
Of course, racing to the bottom isn’t always the best way to make it to the top. In an attempt to discourage teams from tanking, the NHL is implementing changes to the lottery, which kick in just in time for the 2015 Draft. And then there are the fates of the league’s other worst teams since the 1999 overtime-point change. Did their seasons in the abyss end up helping the franchise, or did it set them even further back?
Atlanta Thrashers, 1999-00 (14 wins, 39 points)
The Season: The beginning of the NHL’s doomed second stint in Georgia was legendarily bad: The Thrashers won 14 games, including five on the road. They were shut out 12 times, scored the fewest goals in the league and gave up the most. They didn’t progress as the season went on, either: After a January 6 win over Washington, the Thrashers went on to win four more games over the season’s final three months, losing 36 times (!) and tying just three in that span. Their leading point-getter had a measly 50, and four goaltenders played at least 15 games for them.
The Draft: Somehow, a tanking of such thoroughly epic proportions did not land Atlanta the first pick, which went to the New York Islanders, who finished 19 points better (thanks, lottery). The Thrashers picked Dany Heatley, who’s gone on to score nearly 400 goals, but a horrible twist of fate led him out of Atlanta after just a few seasons.
The Future: Still waiting for it to happen. In 15 years of existence – both in Atlanta and now as the reborn Winnipeg Jets – they’ve made the playoffs once. There are no remnants left of this season, this draft, or even the Dany Heatley trade that followed. And there would be many more seasons like this to come, including a 2001-02 campaign that netted just 54 points.
The Verdict: This was just one end of the extreme in the history of this franchise. The only problem is that the other tops out at “passably mediocre.”
New York Islanders, 2000-01 (21 wins, 52 points)
The Season: There have been many, many bad hockey seasons in Nassau County since the glory days of the early Eighties – but this might have been the worst of them. They had losing streaks of 8, 7 and 6 games, though this team was more about being consistently awful. Mariusz Czerkawski scored 30 goals and managed 62 points, but only one other Islander (Dave Scatchard) topped 20 goals and no one else topped 50 points. The player they took first overall in the previous draft, Rick DiPietro, started a career of questionable usage by playing 20 games for this club as a 19-year-old.
The Draft: This is a long story. Before we get into it, let’s note that the 2001 NHL Draft is one of the worst in league history. Jason Spezza and the ghost of Ilya Kovalchuk are its only notable superstars, with only three real steals (Mike Cammalleri, Patrick Sharp and Jason Pominville) outside the first round.
So…you may be familiar with NBC analyst Mike Milbury, who presided over a lot of these losing Islander teams. He is known by some as “Mad Mike” for both his temperament and his talent-evaluation skills, including trading the the Number 2 pick in this draft (which the Senators would take Spezza with) and two other assets for the services of Alexei Yashin, whose career with Ottawa had come to a standstill due to a lengthy holdout. By the way, one of those pieces was a then-teenaged medical marvel by the name of Zdeno Chara.
The Future: The Islanders made the playoffs in four of the next five seasons with Yashin, but never won a series. New York bought out Yashin after the ’06-07 season and he returned to Russia. While the acquisition brought the Isles out of their immediate doldrums, the future has remained bleak on Long Island until recently, when they appear primed to make a run again.
The Verdict: Yes, the Islanders became a somewhat-perennial playoff team, but never a serious threat to win a title. Their mismanagement rendered almost every season under Milbury, including this one, somewhat pointless.
Tampa Bay Lightning, 1999-00 (19 wins, 54 points)
The Season: After some decent years to start their existence in Tampa, the Lightning struggled mightily heading into the new millennium. Their 1997-98 (44 points) and ’98-99 seasons (47) were brutal, but both came before the ’99 point change…so let’s focus on this terrible campaign instead. How bad were the Bolts? They went just 1-3-1 against that infamous Atlanta Thrashers team that only won 14 games overall. The early seeds of hope were planted thanks to 19-year-old Vincent Lecavalier, who led the Lightning in scoring, but little else went right. Six different goaltenders started five or more games for this club.
The Draft: The Bolts had the fifth pick in the 2000 draft, but traded it away for largely ineffective pieces. Then they traded back in, getting the eighth pick from the Rangers and selecting 6’6″ Russian Nikita Alexeev. He wouldn’t necessarily play a huge part in the revival of the franchise, but did play 11 games in the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Future: While the Lightning didn’t dazzle at the 2000 draft (or the following two seasons), GM Jay Feaster made some very shrewd moves (picking up future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis off the waiver wire) and saw some previously drafted players (Lecavalier, 1998 third-round pick Brad Richards) blossom, added some veteran leadership and won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2003-04.
The Verdict: While the Lightning did eventually win, and with a few players who actually played for this team, they made numerous moves outside the draft that had little to do with their position in 2000.
Philadelphia Flyers, 2006-07 (22 wins, 56 points)
The Season: After a first-round playoff exit the previous year, nothing seemed to suggest the Flyers were anything but a perpetual playoff contender, despite the retirement of mainstays Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins. However, Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg missed plenty of time and they never got anything resembling consistent goaltending (a rather common theme with this franchise), as not one of the five goalies that represented them posted a goals-against average under three. The rest of the team, minus Forsberg – eventually traded to Nashville – became a combo of the too old (Petr Nedved! Derian Hatcher! Alexei Zhitnik!) and the too young (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter). The Flyers were simply unable to compete in a loaded Atlantic Division, where all four of the remaining teams made the playoffs.
The Draft: Philly used the Number 2 pick (after losing the lottery to Chicago and missing out on Patrick Kane) in the 2007 draft on New Jersey-native James van Riemsdyk, who has been a very nice player – for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Philly also had the 23rd pick, which they traded to acquire the rights to negotiate with up-and-comers Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell.
The Future: The Flyers continued to wheel and deal, but eventually settled on a roster that brought them back to the playoffs the next season. Hartnell and Timonen became beloved Flyers, and joined the core of a club (along with Claude Giroux, Carter, Richards and eventual trade acquisition Chris Pronger) that made a run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final.
The Verdict: Since their poor season ended up netting them a first round pick, which, in turn, netted them two core players from their eventual run at a title, let’s call this the most successful of these four tank-jobs. See, anything’s possible, Sabres fans!