Buffalo Sabres winger Jeff Skinner skates with the puck away from Chicago Blackhawks winger Brandon Saad during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 10. The Sabres have re-signed leading scorer Skinner to an eight-year, $72-million contract.(Adrian Kraus/AP)

A beginner’s guide to Buffalo: what to do, where to go and how to feel

“It’s a proud fanbase that is sick of losing”

Now that Whitehorse’s Dylan Cozens is a prospect with the Buffalo Sabres, Yukon interest in New York’s other, other team is at an all-time high.

Heading into the team’s 50th NHL season, the Sabres are enduring the worst decade in franchise history after finishing last overall three of the last year six seasons and currently have the longest playoff drought of any team.

Bill Hoppe, beat writer for the Olean Times Herald, said the team really has nowhere to go but up.

“They’ve become one of the league’s worst teams, if not the worst, over the last five or so years,” said Hoppe. “They have a lot of work to do to get back even in the top 20. They’ve tried a little bit of everything and nothing has worked.”

The Sabres finished sixth in the Atlantic division and 27th overall with just 76 points. After being first in the league in November 2018, the team picked up a league-worst 28 points in 2019.

That’s not to say there is no hope though, as the Sabres have a solid group of players to build around — including Cozens.

“They certainly have a nice core of young players,” said Hoppe. “Jack Eichel is a terrific player. I don’t think he’s there yet, but I think he can be one of the best players in the league in his age group in the next year or two. … They have Rasmus Dahlin who just had about the best season you could imagine from an 18-year-old rookie. He just stepped in the league and did the things he did — it was just incredible. There’s a very good chance that in two, three, four years he’s going to be one of the league’s best defenceman, if not the best defenceman.”

With a top centre and a top defenceman, plus wingers Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart, there’s the making of a solid team if the team culture can change.

“They have a decent base of talent, but they don’t have any depth, there are question marks and I think it’s become a toxic environment,” said Hoppe. “There’s a culture of losing around the team and no one has been able to break out of it.”

Management did make one major offseason move to correct that, hiring Ralph Krueger to be the team’s new head coach.

Krueger has years of coaching experience in Europe, including leading the Swiss national team to three Olympic Games, coached the Edmonton Oilers for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and led Team Europe through the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, taking that underdog group to the finals against Canada.

Most recently though, Krueger was chairman of Southampton F.C.

“This is a very unique hire — it’s a little out of the box,” said Hoppe. “We’re talking about a guy who has coached one season in the NHL — it wasn’t even a full season — and that was it. He was an assistant coach for two years and they just hired him after four or five years running a soccer team. It really is incredible.”

The new coach however, could be the answer to the culture of losing.

“He can get a team together quickly. He’s used to that pressure of a tournament, he’s used to the Olympics and World Championships where it’s do or die — you’ve got to be at your best or you’re gone,” said Hoppe. “People rave about him — just the guy, the communicator — so he’s definitely unique. I think people here like him because the Sabres have tried everything else.”

Since Lindy Ruff was fired during the 2012-13 season, the Sabres have had five coaches.

“They’ve tried basically everything, so why not try something unique like hiring Ralph Krueger?”

Dylan Cozens: second centre of the future?

With Eichel locked up long term, the Sabres are, like so many teams, looking for a second centre to shore up the team’s top six forwards.

All signs point to Cozens potentially being that player at some point in the future, said Hoppe.

“Whenever he makes the NHL, it might take him some time to become that number two centre, but I think long term that’s what he projects to,” said Hoppe. “Cozens, it’s hard for me to imagine if he does make the Sabres that he’ll really be the number two centre, but definitely in a few years that’s where he projects to. That said, I remember when Sam Reinhart was drafted second overall five years ago he was a centre … but he settled into winger. … Long term, I think they want (Cozens) to be their number two centre behind Eichel.”

At the draft, general manager Jason Botterill was clear he didn’t expect Cozens to be on the roster for the Sabres this season although under the collective bargaining agreement, Cozens can play nine NHL games without his entry-level contract kicking in.

“I think there is definitely going to be pressure (to play him) because these kids are so good these days,” said Hoppe. “Even at number seven, you’re getting close to an NHL-ready prospect. If he has a good camp, they might feel like maybe we just keep him because they have that trial so to speak.”

The Queen City: more than just Buffalo wings

Buffalo, New York, gets a bad wrap. Despite being the second-largest city in New York, bustling with restaurants, being just a 20 minute drive from Niagara Falls and enjoying a waterfront revitalization, its reputation as a rustbelt town on the decline is hard to shake.

“It’s a terrific place to live, a terrific place to raise a family because you can do everything that a big city offers in less time and for less money,” said Hoppe. “Sometimes people think it’s a small city — it’s still a pretty big city. To me, it’s definitely a major city. Obviously it’s not Boston or New York or even Pittsburgh, but it’s a big city.”

Famous for chicken wings, Niagara Falls and the assassination of President William McKinley, Hoppe said the city is a great place to take in an NHL game with plenty to do on gameday.

“Buffalo is a great restaurant town, so definitely grab dinner before and maybe even after,” said Hoppe. “Go shopping — there are outlet malls in Niagara Falls, there’s the Walden Galleria mall. Just walk around the waterfront. Buffalo has a beautiful waterfront — it’s growing, it seems, by the month. Niagara Falls is 20 minutes away. Even in the winter, Niagara Falls is beautiful.”

And as for Buffalo wings, Hoppe said it’s hard to go wrong.

“The best thing about Buffalo if you want to get wings is you can go to some pizzeria on the corner — and there is literally a pizzeria on every corner — and you can walk into a small little pizza place and you can have just amazing Buffalo wings,” said Hoppe.

Local advice: order your wings mild or medium.

“At a certain point, you want to enjoy your food,” said Hoppe. “I would recommend medium or mild. Not hot.”

What to expect next season

With one of the toughest divisions in hockey, the Sabres could improve a lot and still miss the playoffs.

“There is a base of talent there,” said Hoppe. “With a new coach, if they can add some depth, if Eichel and Reinhart and Skinner produce, and they get good goaltending, there is no reason they shouldn’t take a jump up. … I’m not sure they’re a playoff team just yet.”

And for those looking to get on the bandwagon — there is plenty of room, by the way — or just understand the fans better, it’s important to remember this was a very competitive franchise for its first 40 years.

“It’s a proud fanbase that is sick of losing,” said Hoppe. “I think they yearn for a winner. You can say that about any fanbase that has experienced some losing but I think it’s really heightened here because they’ve had good teams that have fallen short.”

Brett Hull’s game six goal — or no goal, if you’re with Buffalo on this one — to clinch the 1999 Stanley Cup for the Dallas Stars just turned 20 and fans haven’t forgotten.

“I don’t think Sabres fans have gotten over it,” said Hoppe. “I think they’re still bitter about it. I think they got robbed and if that call goes the other way, who knows?”

You can find Bill Hoppe’s coverage of the Sabres at www.buffalohockeybeat.com

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopkins-hill@yukon-news.com

Buffalo Sabres key games

Dec. 5, 2018 — Buffalo at Calgary

Dec. 7, 2018 — Buffalo at Vancouver

Dec. 8, 2018 — Buffalo at Edmonton

Dec. 23, 2018 — Buffalo at Ottawa

Feb. 18, 2019 — Buffalo at Ottawa

Dylan Cozens