Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Sabres fans have lost all hope. Which struggling team’s fan base might be next?

The Buffalo Sabres are coming off one of the worst weeks in recent franchise history. They continued to fade out of the playoff race thanks to a pair of demoralizing losses to bad teams. Their starting goalie got hurt. And then it all blew up thanks to a frustrated radio caller who ripped into the organization from top to bottom. That rant struck a nerve with a long-suffering fan base that seems to have run out of patience.

I’ve been there. As a Leafs fan, I’ve actually been there a few times. There’s a good chance you have too. Whether it’s Toronto fans throwing waffles, Columbus fans holding protests, Vancouver fans chanting for the GM to get fired or Edmonton fans getting lectured about knowing a thing or two about winning, plenty of us know that feeling of hopelessness they’re experiencing in Buffalo right now. It’s not fun.

So who’s next? If the Sabres are all but a lost cause, which team is in danger of being the next to hit a Buffalo-style tipping point, where fan frustration boils over and it starts to feel like there’s no going back without some sort of major reckoning?

Including the Sabres, there are 10 NHL teams who missed the playoffs last year and are currently sitting outside of a spot again this season. That’s not an exhaustive list of fan unrest, as it leaves out places like Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto where there’s some definite tension, not to mention the ongoing implosion in San Jose. But it’s a solid starting point.

There are three main components of a fan base losing hope, and this year’s Sabres check all three boxes. Their recent history is awful, with eight straight playoff misses and counting. They’ve lost faith in ownership and management, with calls to fire Jason Botterill and plenty of invectives aimed at Terry and Kim Pegula. And they’re wondering about the future, as a so-so prospect pool means the cavalry isn’t exactly on the way. Three-for-three. The Sabres are a mess.

So today, let’s count down those nine other teams using those three criteria – recent history, faith in management and hope for the future, plus a bonus section for any special circumstances – and see if we can figure out which ones are at risk for the next Sabres-style fan base meltdown. We’ll even get some help from the fans themselves, who had plenty to say when I asked about the topic on Twitter earlier this week.

We’ll count them down from nine to one. Let’s get sad.

9. New York Rangers

Recent history: 5/10. They’re on pace to miss the playoffs for a third straight season.

Lack of faith in ownership/management: 5/10. Most of the fan base still seems to believe in Jeff Gorton, and rightly so. This year has been disappointing, but he’s done a good job of mapping out his plan and making sure the fans understand what he’s thinking. The interesting piece here is James Dolan, whose work with the Knicks has seen him widely mocked as one of the very worst owners in the NBA, but who seems to have avoided that reputation on the hockey side, largely by staying out of the way.

Future hopelessness: 3/10. Corey Pronman had them as the No. 1 farm system in the league heading into the season. That was partly based on the excitement over Kaapo Kakko, who hasn’t exactly lived up to the hype in Year 1, and the Lias Andersson situation could be a concern too. But overall, they’re in good shape.

Bonus points: -1 for not being the Knicks. If you have that one sibling who’s a total screwup, you don’t have to do much to look like the good one by comparison.

Tipping point total: 12/30. New York can be a tough market, so when patience starts to run out it could drain down to empty fairly quickly. For now, the Rangers seem fine.

8. Anaheim Ducks

Recent history: 3/10. This will be their second year outside the playoffs after having made it in six straight seasons. It’s also shaping up to be their first really bad season in a long time; they haven’t finished under 80 points in the cap era.

Lack of faith in ownership/management: 8/10. The Henry Samueli/Bob Murray combo has been in charge for well over a decade now, so patience is wearing thin. Samueli already had to do the disappointed-letter-to-fans thing last year, and you wonder how much more rope Murray gets before something changes at the top.

Future hopelessness: 5/10. It’s a solid group, maybe even a bit better than that. But there’s no sure-thing franchise player on the horizon to take the torch from Ryan Getzlaf.

Bonus points: -1 because I only got a single response from a Ducks fan all week and, well, you’ll see.

Tipping point total: 15/30. There are a surprising number of “Fire Bob Murray” petitions out there, which is a very California way for fans to express their frustration.

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