I am not from Buffalo. I grew up in downtown Chicago, followed by college in New York City, a year in Connecticut, and then back to Chicago for a few months. Then I married a girl I met in college, and we decided to move to Western New York.
I was hesitant to move from big-city living to what I believed to be a winter wilderness beside Lake Erie, but I was wrong about this city. There’s no doubt Buffalo, and not just the hockey team, has a recruiting problem directly related with their image.
Before I visited Buffalo, the only image I had in my mind was a city full of empty warehouses, Niagara Falls, and lots of snow. That’s the national image of Buffalo. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and watch a nationally televised sporting event taking place in Buffalo. You’re bound to hear all about the weather and get at least one shot of the Falls with the score at the bottom of the screen. It’s just how it goes.
But we (yes I’m including myself now that I live here) expected that perception to disappear when the free agency period opened in 2011. Buffalo had a new owner with deep pockets willing to throw money at the best talent. The team that took the reigning Eastern Conference Champions to seven games in the first round of the playoffs was about to spend a lot in free agency, and Brad Richards was the most coveted player.
Just as the Sabres were starting their offseason activities, I was settling into my new home. I started going to Bisons games on the weekends and spending at least two days a week on the water. My interest in the Sabres was growing, despite my home team’s recent success. (I wasn’t really a hockey fan growing up, the Bulls were the team to love when I was a kid.) Buffalo was growing on me, and it seemed hockey free agents were starting to feel the same way.
The Sabres signed Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino first. Both players were coming off their best seasons with over fifty points scored (both players have yet to eclipse those points totals since the 2010-2011 year). Things were looking up.
But Darcy Regier and the Sabres never got a chance to even talk to Richards. He locked into the Rangers, and we tried (some of us at least) not to take it as a slight against the city. If anything, Richards lack of connection with the Sabres was due to the Sabres fearing they’d miss out of Leino. This WIVB article says it all:
Regier says the Sabres did not want to lose a chance to sign Leino while they travelled to suburban Toronto to pursue Richards.
"We felt very strongly about Ville," Regier said," and we felt that it was important to make sure we didn't allow a quality player like him to slip by us."
So the Sabres didn’t lose out on the top ranked free agent due to Buffalo’s image alone. That’s nice to know.
In the end, the Sabres ended up getting the 8th (Leino) and 16th (Ehrhoff) ranked free agents in 2011, according to this Bleacher Report article. They were the only team in 2011 to net two new players from that list.
As the Sabres entered last year’s free agency period, the buzz was all over Parise, Suter, and Doan. It turns out very few teams actually had a shot at those three players due to the desire to team up for their hometown teams (Parise and Suter) and Doan’s loyalty to the Phoenix franchise. The Sabres didn’t miss those players because they’re Buffalo.
Speaking of Parise and Suter, how much of an impact do the top free agents have on their new teams? I compiled the unofficial (and possibly inaccuarate) free agent rankings from Bleacher Report articles since the 2010 free agency period and the points improvement (or decline) their new teams had the following season for the top-twenty players who signed with new teams. The results are in the graph below, and you’ll notice there’s no correlation at all.
This winter, my fondness for Buffalo and Western New York grew to an enchantment with the region. The rabid fanbase stole my heart (as a lifelong Cubs fan, I appreciate a passionate and undying crowd) through the weekly excitement leading up to Bills games, and the angst and frustration surrounding the NHL Lockout. Anyone who spends just a little time here notices it.
Buffalo is a pretty great sports town despite the lack of championships, and it’s a better place to live than advertised.
So as the free agency period nears, I’m not too worried about Buffalo’s image negatively impacting the hockey team’s recruiting efforts. First, a free agent or two might not make the team better at all. Second, the players don’t even need to live here, they just need to play here. And if they play well, they’ll get all the attraction, appreciation, and support any player could ever ask for.
The recruiting problem doesn’t really matter that much when it comes to making the hockey team better. Maybe we shouldn’t care as much about what others think about our city as much as whether we can finally make the playoffs next season. On second thought, we care because we haven’t made the playoffs. Let’s just work on that.
I agree that the City's image is probably not the reason we can't attract free agents. I think the reason we can't attract free agents is that the organization is weak and unfocused. If I were a first-line player I would not want to work for the Black and Regier. I think we will have trouble in the future in attracting the type of quality players we need until the Sabres organization is staffed with first-class personnel.
Actually, your graph appears to have a correlation. Just a small one... you have 18 teams that improved and 16 that got worse the next season. And the 18 improvements seem to have slightly larger values than the teams that declined. Just guessing, but it seems that signing a top free-agent is probably worth 2-5 points. Which is right about what I'd expect.