(Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
When the Sabres and Leafs squared off in Buffalo Wednesday, some Leafs fans were cheering every Sabres goal and vice-versa. That may not sit well with some people, but don't blame those fans for the Bizarro World cheers. They recognize that, under the NHL's current system, tanking is the safest route to an eventual return to Stanley Cup contention.
When the Sabres and Maple Leafs clashed Wednesday night – OK, "clash" is probably too strong a word, as it's commonly associated with the word "titans" and an excellent band you young punks should get into if you haven't already, and we don't want to sully either of those things by linking them to these two teams – we saw another instance of the Bizarro World phenomenon that occurs when fans obsessed with winning the upcoming NHL entry draft lottery cheer for the opposing team to beat their own organization.
Some NHLers have all but dry-heaved after the indignity of performing in front of their hometown fans and being subjected to cheers for the visitors. That's certainly understandable, as it runs contrary to every instinct we have about pro sports. Playing on the road should put the fear of the hockey gods into players, not wrap them in blankets and give them a nice hug and a cookie. But players and team executives shouldn't see this as the fault of fans. To the contrary: they should appreciate a fan base that recognizes the best way to build a Stanley Cup contender under the league's current collective bargaining agreement is to do what teams like Toronto and Buffalo are doing: by tearing it all down, taking your lumps like a grownup and building slowly.
When the league implemented a salary cap system in 2005, it effectively ceased the movement, either via trade or free agency, of high-end players in their prime. With no monetary advantage to leaving and a contract system that puts the real power in the hands of teams and not players in their formative (and often, most productive) years, NHLers stayed with the franchise that drafted them 99 percent of the time. Also working in franchise owners' favor is the undeniable fact hockey players are creatures of comfort, and once they begin to put down roots in their particular community, it's next to impossible to get them to move on. Think of what John Tavares has endured on Long Island since the Isles drafted him in 2009. If he didn't want to go anywhere after that, it's hard to picture what sort of misery would cause a generational talent to leave his first team.
So, short of a miracle taking place, you are not going to acquire a Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane or, this year, a Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel through free agency or trades. It's just not going to happen, no matter how hard you hope for it or visualize it a la "The Secret". The Leafs are living proof of this. They saw Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf as cornerstone players, but clearly, neither is on that level. The only way to get that calibre of talent in your particular fold is to draft them. And unless your scouting staff can do what a team like the Detroit Red Wings did when they drafted Pavel Datsyuk 171st overall, Henrik Zetterberg 210th overall and Nicklas Lidstrom 53rd overall, the only way to select them is by having an exceedingly high draft pick.
Now, that doesn't mean it's a foolproof plan. The Oilers are living proof of this. You can absolutely screw up despite having a slew of top picks in successive years. But more often than not, teams get those choices right. So if we're talking odds and percentages, the best method to constructing a champion is to suffer long and suffer hard for a few years, then surround the young jewels you landed in the lean years with the right mix of veterans.
People such as Sabres GM Tim Murray and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan understand this and have directed their teams accordingly. And their fans can see the transparency of the plan. So unless we're talking about cheering just for the sake of convention, why would Toronto and Buffalo fans root for a meaningless victory at the end of the season when all those two points do is hurt their chances of getting better sooner via the surest route to that end? When you look at it this way, the truly bizarre thing for fans to do would be to cheer on their team and applaud short-term gain that could result in long-term pain.
Again, this isn't the fans' fault, nor is is the fault of the teams. The players are caught in the middle and have to live with the awkwardness of the situation, but they too have to realize this is the system the league wanted, and that many, if not most fans see their team in realistic terms.
And realistically, if the Sabres' victory over Toronto winds up being one of the wins that pushes them out of 30th place – thus removing the guarantee they would receive either McDavid or Eichel this summer, regardless of the draft lottery result – the Sabres fans who booed when Buffalo scored against the Leafs will be vindicated.