In the midst of what is, if not rock bottom for the Buffalo Sabres, at least the lowest any of us have experienced up until this point (have to always consider the possibility for things to deteriorate further), I can say from my observations that no one seems to be handling it particularly well. That is not to say that everyone is handling it in the same way, just that no one seems to be handling it well. Maybe a good way to handle a situation like the one the Sabres find themselves in doesn’t exist, at least not for the fans who follow the team closest and have done so for years. Everyone is pissed off at someone, or some group, whether that be ownership, management, or the media for using the vulnerability, confusion and disappointment of the team’s fans to push what in the end is nothing but rumors, conjecture, and scapegoats in an effort to prey on their attachment to the team for page views and newspaper purchases. The fire sale was always coming, yet its arrival has brought fewer calm and reasonable voices than it has frenzied debates that have no winners.
In the end it’s sadly appropriate that this is how Ryan Miller departs, an afterthought, overshadowed by larger front office and ownership disarray, being merely the first domino in the final gutting of a team that has been rotting from the inside for years. He couldn’t even have the transaction to himself, had to share the podium with a guy that had spent barely enough games here to constitute a full season, couldn’t have the final home game before the deadline to himself, getting yanked from the lineup with most fans in traffic on the way to the FNC or downing their pregame wings and beer at Cobblestone. Aside from the RT’s of the St. Louis Blues twitter- which aren’t in any way as interesting or applicable as some think- the discussion has already shifted to who’s next, what’s next for a team that seems at once to be rudderless and piloted by capable hands. Discussion about what Miller looks like in a Blues jersey, or says about his new home, or produces for his new team is only relevant in what conditional draft pick the Sabres end up receiving in return. I’ve never understood the purpose of keeping a dossier on a player’s actions following his departure to a new place, I think it’s far better to look back at the time he was here, the times we got to watch him and remember how lucky we all were for that.
To me, Ryan Miller’s entire career here is epitomized by the last few minutes of overtime in Game Five against Ottawa in 2007. That is remembered for Alfredsson’s weak wrister, Campbell’s screen and the death of the shortest great run in team history, going out with a whimper instead of a bang. It also made people forget one of Miller’s most incredible saves, a stick save on the goal line that, if the Sabres had simply win game five at home and lost in Ottawa the next, would at least be remembered. Instead, it goes down as ultimately meaningless. I’ve seen people use that same argument to paint a much broader stroke on his career, use the Ice Bowl, Game Seven at Philadelphia, the gold medal game in Vancouver to, if not write off his career in the Red and White/Blue and Gold, shrink it, strip it of its significance. Whether that’s a defensive mechanism or evidence of a greater bias, I don’t know, I just know it makes me sad. I can make counter arguments to all three of those silly empirical examples over a ten year career but whatever. Actually, Game Seven at Philadelphia is an example of the same goddamn problem with my first example. I’ve heard this offered up for years from the lowest common denominator, conveniently forgetting the TWO (!) 1-0 shutouts he won in that series.
The only thing he didn’t give us as fans was his 2010-present form in 2006. He got passed over for fucking John Grahame for the Torino games, the first time that I openly laughed at the failure of the US Olympic team, and the Sabres run through the Eastern Conference that season was one that no one can claim was driven by its goaltender. Is that his fault? Well, if you need to cling to your hate like some pathetic nine-year old still clinging to their blanket, then think whatever the hell you want to. The facts aren’t different from person-to-person, and without a Stanley Cup the narrative will always be able to be twisted into failure for any player/coach/GM/owner that this franchise has seen.
I can only hope in time that Ryan Miller’s place here becomes more respected, more appreciated for what it was. My grandmother appreciates and respects the Jim Kelly years even though I remember very clear her constant pleas for the team to bench him in favor of Reich during the 90’s. I just hope it doesn’t take fifteen years of losing for it to be realized. I hope there can be a day five or ten years from now, where a team that has won their first cup with someone not named Miller or Hasek can raise 30 to the rafters and the crowd will shower him with applause that he heard far less often than he deserved during his time here.
So now what?
It’s more simply the realization that this is really where we are right now; speculating the asking prices on the team’s best players, wondering just how unproven the unproven prospect they receive in return will be, if they actually get a tangible human being back at all and not just a draft slot that will eventually turn into a tangible human being unless they trade that slot for another slot or another unproven prospect. Meanwhile, as the Sabres cleanse themselves of their long festering disease, the rotting carcass that was once The Buffalo News is here to poison the weaker fans into believing their only option is to be angry. BE ANGRY at ownership, he doesn’t know what he’s doing! BE ANGRY at LaFontaine, his concussions as a player made him crazy! BE ANGRY at the management team, they don’t have a direction! BE ANGRY BE ANGRY BE ANGRY. It’s pathetic and yet still manages to snag respectable, intelligent minds into debating speculation, conjecture and garbage, debating who is to blame for something that doesn't even have enough evidence to support its very existence. The debate about the loss of a position that was so inconsequential it didn’t exist three months ago and doesn’t exist now is a meaningless, empty debate regarding the future of the franchise. Holy shit, someone in the office might not have liked someone else in the office, better follow that hot lead for a week.
As a fan, I don’t understand this landscape. I don’t understand why some prefer one team versus another as a destination for current players outside of what team would give the better return for the Sabres. I don’t get this fragmenting of allegiances, unless people who I thought were Sabres fans really gave less of a shit than I previously thought. We joke about bandwagon cities like Miami, Tampa, Phoenix, Atlanta, but is this what the beginning of that fragmentation- that of a fan base frantically scattering for a new bandwagon to climb onto- looks like? How many of those that filled the plaza with blue and gold in 2007 have attended games in Habs, Leafs, Oilers, Pens, Capitals jerseys since? And at the same time we have the media practically encouraging that by making their narrative clear; there is no hope, there is only despair. Whether this is a narrative that TBN has been waiting to sink its teeth into since Pegula first blew them off three years ago is up to debate (no it isn’t, that’s absolutely what has happened), but it certainly seems their angle has penetrated the fan base enough to draw blood. It just makes me shudder at what “rock bottom” may still lie ahead for those left rooting for the team during the lean years.
So I guess that leaves us remaining behind, watching Compher, Makarov, McCabe, Bailey, Ristolainen, Zadorov, Grigorenko, Larsson like the band on the Titanic, except after the sinking comes a rising. If people want to tune in to every Kings, Sharks, Blues, Ducks, Blackhawks, Pens, Wild, whatever game for two or three years, telling themselves the Sabres are still their favorite team even though they pop up to smugly say in the middle of the second period “oh the Sabres are on tonight? I had no idea lulz,” there’s nothing I can do to stop them. I mean, it’s not respectable and pretty pathetic and I wouldn’t trust a word you said to be regarding anything but in the end that’s nothing. The Sabres Store will still sell you stuff, you’ll still be able to get into games, there will be no public shaming like the resistance did to Nazi sympathizers after the war, you’ll be able to climb back on the bandwagon like nothing happened and no one aside from those closest to you will ever know how you exposed yourself as a soulless front-runner.
But like many character flaws, that is something that the rest of us will be able to uncover quite quickly, whether you sit near us in the arena, or we overhear you chatting at Pearl Street before the game, or god forbid one of us goes on a date with you. And that’s when you become a joke.
Strike up the band.