BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — With his nose broken and a red bruise formed beneath his left eye, veteran Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford settled on a sliver of positive perspective in assessing one of the worst and most tumultuous seasons in the franchise’s 44-year history.
“It’s pretty embarrassing.” Stafford said Monday, upon joining his teammates in cleaning out their lockers. “And it’s something that you don’t want to have to deal with ever again.”
And yet, Stafford added, breaking into a smile: “We can only go up from here.”
Things can’t get much worse in Buffalo following a season during which the team set numerous dubious lows.
En route to a 21-51-10 last-place finish, the Sabres opened the year getting off to a 2-13-1 start, and then closed it with a 2-16-2 slump, capped by blowing a 2-0 lead in a 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Islanders on Sunday.
Very little went right in between.
General manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston were fired in mid-November.
What was left of the team’s veteran core was dismantled by a series of trades. The purge started in October, when Thomas Vanek was traded to the Islanders. And it continued with a series of deals leading up to the trade deadline in March, when goalie Ryan Miller and captain Steve Ott were sent to St. Louis.
Pat LaFontaine was hired as president of hockey operations in November, before he abruptly resigned on March. 1
And then there was the constant revolving door of raw rookies, journeymen and minor-leaguers that were brought in to plug holes on a patchwork and injury-riddled roster.
The Sabres set a franchise record in having 48 players suit up for at least one game this season, including an NHL-high nine goalies.
Defenseman Mike Weber compared the Sabres to “The Island of Misfit Toys,” a reference to the castoffs made famous from the animated movie, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
“So many changes. New faces every day. It was tough to keep track at times,” Weber said. “And every time it seemed like we’d get a couple of guys back, we’d lose a couple more.”
Buffalo set an NHL expansion-era low by managing just 150 goals, one fewer than the 1997-98 Tampa Bay Lightning scored. And the Sabres established franchise lows for fewest wins and most losses in an 80-plus-game season.
“There’s been a lot of changes since I’ve been here the last three years, and it’s gotten worse every time,” forward Ville Leino said. “But this one is by far the worst.”
How bad was it?
The Sabres’ 21 wins in 82 games this year matched their total from the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule the previous season. And their 51 regulation losses were the most since the Islanders went 21-51-7-3 in 2000-01, according to STATS.
This wasn’t exactly the objective owner Terry Pegula laid out upon purchasing the Sabres in February 2011, when he boldly vowed to build a contender within three seasons.
On Monday, Pegula was preaching patience in summing up the team’s finish.
“It’s understandable given all the moves we made,” Pegula said, outside the team’s locker room following a lengthy meeting with new general manager Tim Murray.
More changes are certain to come.
With coach Ted Nolan signed to a three-year contract extension, it’s widely anticipated he will shuffle the assistant staff he inherited in replacing Rolston.
Murray, meanwhile, is focusing on upgrading the roster beginning with the draft in June.
The Sabres can pick no worse than second, and have a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 selection in the NHL draft lottery, which will be conducted Tuesday.
Murray is essentially starting from scratch in rebuilding a team through youth.
Leino is the only returning veteran whose status is uncertain. Though Leino has three years left on his contract, he’s regarded as a potential buyout candidate after three mostly under-performing seasons in Buffalo.
“I think probably everybody needs to step back for a second and think about what’s smart here,” Leino said, referring to his future. “To be honest, I haven’t been thinking about it that much. I just wanted to get the season over and then look at it again.”