BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — The Buffalo Sabres are in last place. And many of their fans are openly rooting for the standings to stay that way.
“Lose!” yelled Doug Borsuk, a 10-year season-ticket holder from the upper level during a recent Sabres’ home game. “Of course it’s weird. But it’s ultimately for them to succeed. If they’re not going to make the playoffs, they might as well finish last.”
Though the Sabres don’t ascribe to the sentiment, the down-is-up mentality has taken hold. The prime objective among fans has become for the Sabres to bottom out to get the best chance to land one of two highly touted draft prospects: OHL Erie Otters center Connor McDavid and American-born Boston University center Jack Eichel.
Both are described as having once-in-a-generation potential. And under NHL rules, only the last-place team is guaranteed to draft first or second.
The compound name “McEichel” has become a popular hashtag reference among Sabres fans on Twitter. Some have written letters to the editor imploring the Sabres to lose. And several hosts on the team’s flagship radio station are on board by providing daily updates on the bottom end of the standings.
“You really can’t hide from it,” said forward Patrick Kaleta, who grew up in nearby Angola rooting for the Sabres. “I don’t like it.”
With two-and-a-half weeks left, the chances of Buffalo (20-46-7) finishing last hinge heavily on a two-game set against the 29th-place Arizona Coyotes (22-44-8).
The teams, who have gone a combined 6-28-5 since Feb. 10, are separated by five points entering their game at Buffalo on Thursday. They’ll meet again at Arizona on Monday.
“Lose the games, please,” were the words of discouragement Borsuk had for the Sabres. “The players should want to win. I’m rooting for them to lose. And I’m willing to take on any fan who thinks otherwise.”
Coach Ted Nolan isn’t listening.
“I can’t control what other people think,” Nolan said, Wednesday. “Who wants to finish last? Nobody wants to finish last. I never went into anything my entire life wanting to finish last. You go into it with the right intentions, and it’s the integrity of the game that’s on the line.”
Through the purging of high-priced veteran contracts, the Sabres have become a shell of the team they were as recently as two seasons ago.
Goalie Ryan Miller, captain Steve Ott and leading scorer Thomas Vanek were among those traded away last season in moves that led to Buffalo finishing last with a franchise-worst 21 wins. This season, the Sabres haven’t been much better with a lineup that has featured as many as nine players who opened the season in the American Hockey League.
General manager Tim Murray had low expectations to begin this season. And yet, he didn’t envision the Sabres to be this bad after adding captain Brian Gionta and veteran defenseman Josh Gorges last summer.
“We had no stars in our eyes thinking that we were going to be a contender for the Cup by any means,” Murray told The Associated Press. “Has it gone completely as I would’ve envisioned? Maybe not.”
Murray further diluted the lineup last month, when he traded defenseman Tyler Myers and forward Drew Stafford in a seven-player deal with Winnipeg to acquire forward Evander Kane and defenseman Zach Bogosian.
Kane was the key acquisition, but he won’t be ready until September after having season-ending shoulder surgery.
The Coyotes, coming off a 5-4 overtime win at Detroit on Tuesday, aren’t sure what reception they’ll get in Buffalo, knowing some Sabres fans might be rooting for them.
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett joked it might feel similar to playing in Arizona, where it’s not uncommon for out-of-town Canadian fans to root for the visitor.
“But that’s inconsequential,” Tippett said. “That has nothing to do with the bearing of the game, nothing at all. Players don’t think that way. Coaches don’t think that way. You go into a game, and you’re going to play to win.”
Sabres center Tyler Ennis is taking the same approach, no matter what fans think.
“I can understand what people are thinking,” Ennis said. “But I know if they were in our shoes, they wouldn’t want to lose.”
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