BUFFALO – Mike Weber spoke passionately, like a man embarrassed by what he had just experienced. The worst season in the Sabres’ 43-year history clearly jolted the defenseman.
“You don’t want that feeling walking around town that you’ve disappointed people or you’re letting people down, especially a hardworking city like Buffalo,” Weber said Monday inside the First Niagara Center. “I think to every man we’ve accepted the challenge.”
Weber talked about changing the team’s culture, eliminating excuses and playing hockey for the right reasons as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers and held end-of-season meetings following a tumultuous campaign in which they finished dead last in the NHL.
“We’re not joking around anymore, there has to be a new standard here,” he said. “That word has been thrown around here for a couple of years talking to all you guys, ‘We got to change the culture, change the standards.’ Enough’s enough. Joke’s over.
“I mean, we’re not in this game to get high draft picks, at least I’m not, and I know that’s not the goal for the front office.”
Sabres winger Drew Stafford added: “Fantasy camp’s over here. We need to get back to being a respectable organization, respectable team.”
Just a day after the Sabres finished a 21-51-10 season – they won only 11 games in regulation, meaning opponents earned at least one point in 71 of the 82 games – players spoke optimistically about the future.
They’re confident coach Ted Nolan and general manager Tim Murray can keep changing the culture and guide the team to a new level.
“I believe that things start from the top and they filter their way down,” Weber said. “We’ve got the best owner in the game. We’ve got a new general manager. We have our new head coach. Now the responsibility’s on us.”
The Sabres have a slew of high draft picks and a 25 percent chance of securing the No. 1 overall selection this June during tonight’s NHL Draft Lottery. They also possess a stable of choice prospects.
“For how bad this year was, how disappointing it is, the future’s definitely bright here in Buffalo,” Stafford said.
He added: “I’m definitely excited. If I was a fan of the Sabres, I’d be very anxious to see what happens.”
Almost a year ago, well before the rebuilding Sabres started their tumultuous season, Weber heard former general manager Darcy Regier had warned there could be “suffering” ahead.
“To be honest with you, you hear those things but you never think things are going to get as bad as they did,” Weber said.
The Sabres lost their first seven games and 14 of the opening 16. While Nolan made them much more competitive after replacing Ron Rolston on Nov. 13, they kept losing. They ended the season on a seven-game losing skid and with losses in 18 of the last 20.
Change was a constant throughout the year. A team-record 45 players skated for the Sabres. Eleven ended the season injured.
“It’s one of those things that makes you grow,” Weber said about the season. “You do have to feel defeat to succeed. These are the type of things where you see guys’ true character come out and what they’re going to be able to do over the course of the next five months to bring it next season so you don’t feel the same way again.”
Stafford added: “The amount of adversity we went through with all the change in management and players, injuries, you can go down the list of excuses. But the bottom line is this is something we’re moving on from. We’re turning the page.”
Incredibly, only eight players from the opening-night lineup played in Sunday’s season finale. Before the maintenance crew demolished the ice Monday, the Sabres posed for their annual team photo.
They finished the season with 31 players on the roster.
“A lot of guys in that picture,” Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said. “But the message was clear that everyone in the room was going to have a shot showing what they could do. With as many changes as there were this year, they got to know a lot of guys pretty well. I think that’ll benefit us well coming into camp.”