As Buffalo Sabres Coach Ted Nolan leaves his morning skate press conference he is cornered by three well-established NHL commentators. They react as if they've seen a long lost friend.
"It's good to see you smiling," says one of them.
Nolan has had little reason to smile lately. The Sabres have just 18 points through 24 games—fourth-worst in the NHL. They have scored 43 goals and allowed 76—the worst differential in the league (-33). People knew they would be bad going into the season, but few expected this sort of bad.
Help could come next year in the form of Connor McDavid, a generational prospect who is scoring at a torrential pace for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League and is all but a lock to be the first pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. But the Sabres, even if they continue their abysmal play and finish with the league's worst record, are not guaranteed that pick. Not even close.
In August, the NHL reduced the odds a last-place team has to grab the first overall pick, down from 25 percent to 20 percent. Last year, the Sabres finished dead last in the league but fell a spot in the lottery, landing the second overall pick.
In a game of lucky bounces, the Sabres often do not get any.
"When you lose as much as we have it wears on you," Nolan admits. There are bags under his eyes and terseness in his voice.
But the 56-year-old Nolan has had hills to climb before. He was behind the bench for the 2014 Latvian men's Olympic team during one of the greatest near upsets in recent hockey history. His team faced 57 shots from the formidable Canadian squad and nearly eked out a win, eventually falling 2-1 late in the third period.
"There are some guys here that are used to winning," he says. "When you go through a rebuilding process there has to be guys who set the example."
"Rebuilding" is the term most commonly associated with the approach teams such as the Sabres have taken. The NHL, being the cyclical league that it is, rarely sees teams continue their dominance for long stretches of time.
Let's not forget that the Sabres were the President's Trophy winners in 2006-2007 with the league's best regular season record, and handily won the Northeast Division in 2009-2010. For Nolan, who coached the Sabres in the mid-90s, and took over again as an interim coach last November, there's no sense in looking back—only forward. But what exactly he's looking forward to is hard to figure.
Except, perhaps, McDavid, who is playing his home games just 95 miles down I-90 in Erie. An October game between McDavid's Otters and the Niagara Ice Dogs, held in the Sabres' First Niagara Center, drew more than 11,000 attendees. Sabres fans see a glimmer of hope in McDavid. Some have even shown up to Sabres games with McDavid's name stitched on the back of their jerseys.
The organization and its fans are stuck in that awkward place where they are aware of a tank job, but do not want to acknowledge it, or choose not to believe it. After all, teams are supposed to try to win, right?
"It hurts, but we understand," says Sabres fan Ryan Gerwitz, standing outside the First Niagara Center as the late afternoon temperature begins to drop below freezing.
"I've never met a player in my life who purposefully wants to lose," Nolan says. "It's not in their makeup."
Yet, after the NHL made the changes to their draft lottery rules, Murray essentially conceded that the Sabres were indeed not thinking about lifting the Stanley Cup this year.
"Greedily, I'm upset," he said, "because I think we have more of a chance of next season being one of the lower teams."
"You know who you're affecting, that that's not fair," he said. "I asked them that if we're going to make a change, could we make it five years out? I was trying to make a point, as I do exaggerate sometimes, but what about three years out? If it's three years out, it's 2016, and I don't care. I don't plan on being involved in that No. 1 pick."
The Hockey News reported that while the last-place team is guaranteed one of the top two draft picks, the team with the second-worst record only has a 33.5% chance of landing one of these picks.
Meanwhile, the hockey analytics community, which puts a premium on possession statistics, has argued that the Sabres are tanking. GM Tim Murray, the argument goes, is intentionally jettisoning players with good Corsi and Fenwick ratings (statistics which Murray has acknowledged that the Sabres use) in favor of players with bad ones. The GM declined to speak with VICE Sports for this story.
Of course, this would not make the Sabres the first NHL team to tank by any means. In fact, what they are doing is not nearly as shameless as the Ottawa Senators performance in the 1992-93 season, which saw them win only 10 of 84 games and get investigated by the NHL for intentionally losing in order to land a player then deemed generational: 18-year-old Alexandre Daigle. The Senators play that season led to the creation of the NHL Entry Draft lottery, and Daigle turned out to be among the biggest busts in hockey history.
Then again, there's the Pittsburgh Penguins example. The Penguins finished last in their division three years in a row leading into the NHL lockout. They drafted goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003, center Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004, and then, after the lockout, they nabbed Sidney Crosby with the first overall pick in 2005. In 2009, they lifted the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, the Sabres are devoid of top-shelf talent. In fact, what they did have in that department—goaltender Ryan Miller and left winger Thomas Vanek—they traded away as part of a 2013 fire sale. Could McDavid bring the Sabres to the promised land? It's entirely possible, but Crosby did not win the Stanley Cup alone. And the supporting cast in Buffalo can't score goals or win games.
The talk of tanking has crept its way into the locker room, too. "We read about it in training camp, we read about it last year," says Nolan. "They're aware, but they're not concerned.
"Sometimes it takes a little while but when you go through that rough water, once you hit that smooth sailing it feels so much better."
Whether or not it's McDavid who the Sabres end up drafting next year, a young man will come to Buffalo and he will be expected to steer the Sabres out of the storm. Those are great expectations. McDavid may be as spectacular a talent as has entered the league since Crosby, but an 18-year-old, no matter how skilled, is just as liable to be sunk by the rough waters as he is to pull the city, and franchise, out of it.
For now, Sabres fans are stuck watching bad hockey and waiting. They have no choice but optimism, if they are going to enjoy the team at all.
"People in Buffalo just have the faith," says Dennis Sciolino, a Sabres fan of more than 20 years. He is sipping a beer at a downtown sports bar before the Sabres take on the rival Toronto Maple Leafs—a game they will win 6-2. "They make it hard for us sometimes, but they know we'll stick around."