By Justin LaDuca
Most of us sports fans already know that this past June, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers brought home the citys’ first major sports title since 1964. Not only was it the first major sports title since Jim Brown’s Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship, but it was the first championship won in Cavaliers’ franchise history. The championship could not have come at a better time for Cleveland sports whose fans have suffered through many painful sports moments with the Browns, Indians and Cavs.
From “The Drive” to “The Shot” to “The Decision,” Cleveland fans have remained loyal to their sports teams that give them a reason for hope in the small blue collar city. And when that moment to celebrate finally came just a few weeks ago, a huge burden was lifted off the city’s back. Fans went crazy and partied in the streets during their victory parade, some fans even scaled and climbed up buildings downtown in their Cavs’ jerseys. The icing on the cake however occurred when the city’s savior, LeBron James, spoke in front of all of these fans and reminded them that he had lived up to his promise, and that was to bring a championship back to northeast Ohio.
As I sat there on m couch watching the celebration, I began to wonder when I would see a day like this occur in my hometown of Western New York? I then thought of how crazy the City of Buffalo would be after one of its team won a championship. Would we be even more hectic then Cleveland after the Bills finally won a Super Bowl…after witnessing them lose four in a row? Or would we celebrate just as crazy in the streets after the Sabres won the Stanley Cup, after witnessing the 1999 “No Goal” Stanley Cup Finals? Absolutely we would. Just like Cleveland, Buffalo’s sports championship drought is long overdue. On top of that, just like Cleveland, we ourselves have also lived through some very painful sports memories.
Lets begin with”Wide Right,” this is by far the most tragic and terrible sports memories Buffalo has ever lived though. Who can forget Scott Norwood’s potential Super Bowl XXV potential game-winning kick, sailing just right of the field goal post in 1991. Oh and lets not forget, our beloved Bills would return three more times to the Super Bowl after this, only losing every single time. How about 1999’s “No Goal?” After a stellar season where goalie Dominik Hasek lead the Sabres to the Stanley Cup, our dreams would be crushed yet again when Brett Hull would score the Cup clinching goal in Game 6, with his foot illegally in the crease. Last but not least, the “Music City Miracle,” our last time in the playoffs that ended in an illegal play that I will not get into. These are just a few examples of what we lived through. You know what? Lets just top it all off with the fact that the most famous person to come out of your city and potentially the greatest player in your football team’s franchise history is a murderer (OJ Simpson). However, I do believe there is some light at the end of the tunnel. In the next upcoming seasons, the Bills and Sabres have a chance to lift their own sports burden off of this cities shoulders.
Both the Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres are shaping up to be promising young teams. The Bills finally have a quarterback and the Sabres are finally out of their “Tank Mode” and have began the chance to finally compete for a playoff spot. In order to get to that playoff spot, the Sabres need to take advantage of the fact that they have had one year down to build chemistry as a team. Going into last season, the Sabres were rewarded for two awful seasons by selecting generational talent, Jack Eichel, in the 2015 NHL Draft. Eichel will be the centerpiece of this young team that already has a solid core of Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reily, and recently signed forward, Kyle Okposo. With these solid offensive weapons, Buffalo still has plenty of depth with wingers Evander Kane, Tyler Ennis, Zegus Girgensons and Marcus Foligno. Not to mention, the Sabres have a very good chance to sign Hobey Baker winner, Jimmy Vesey from Harvard University. Buffalo traded the Nashville Predators a third round pick for the rights to sign Vesey. It is only a matter of time before he makes his decision on whether he wants to play in Buffalo, or wait it out and become a free agent in August. If head coach Dan Bylsma, can figure out some solid forward lines, the Sabres shouldn’t have any problems with putting the puck in the net.
Not only do I expect the Sabres to be an offensive and high scoring team, but I also think they will be a great two-way team. This team will send out lines that can not only score, but will be able to shut down opposing team’s top lines on defense. With players like Ryan O’Reily, Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons and Marcus Foligno, I expect these players to contribute in the offensive zone but also skate hard back to their own zone to play defense and play physical along the boards. These are the types of players that can win you a Stanley Cup with pure grit when the game is on the line. The duo of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart is the most exciting thing about this team. Both players scored 20 goals last season in their rookie years and have the opportunity to be one of the next great duos in hockey. Imagine a Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane esque duo in Buffalo. Both of these players, each selected second overall in their respected drafts, have the chance to do so.
On defense Buffalo is getting better. Although their defense may not be ready for a Stanley Cup run just yet, they look promising. Reassume Ristolainen is this teams number one defensemen. Each year Ristolainen has improved and has shown he can play both an offensive and defensive side to his game. Behind him are veterans Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges. Although both players are defensive defensemen, they provide leadership to this core and both play a physical game. After them are newly acquired Dimitry Kulikov who played last season with eh Florida Panthers, and Jake McCabe. According to General Manager Tim Murray, Kulikov was Floridas best defensemen in the playoffs this past season and can play a physical and gritty game. He is also young at only twenty-five years of age. McCabe ha played with Buffalo the past two seasons and even played with Team USA at the 2015 and 2016 IHF World Championships. McCabe is also young at twenty-two years old and should be a regular blue liner for Buffalo in the years to come. I think this unit is good enough to take a team to the playoffs, but is maybe a piece or two away from Cup contention. After all defense wins championships. I think Murray will still make a move to trade one of his surplus forwards for another steady defensemen.
Finally, the Sabres main concern is at goaltender. Last year Buffalo’s goaltending scenarion did not work out great at all. Robin Lehner, the team’s expected starter was injured more than half of the season, but did however prove to show some signs of being a franchise goalie during his short tenures. Chad Johnson the teams starter throughout a large majority of the season was recently signed by the Calgary Flames. The excepted backup goalie will be former St. Louis Blues member, Anders Nilsson. Last season Nilsson was 10-13 with 3.12 GAA and a .901 save percentage. Not the greatest of stats, but he is 6′ 5″ just around the same size of Lehner. It seems that Murray likes big bodied goaltenders. The biggest key to a Sabres’ playoff berth and eventual Stanley Cup will be the play of their net minder. If Lehner can stay healthy and make the big saves, this team will be fine. After all I expect them to score a lot of goals, Lehner just needs to play average at the very least. In fact the last five goalies that won a Stanley Cup, only one of them I consider a franchise goalie and that was Jonathan Quick. You can get by in todays NHL with great offensive, solid defense and average goaltending. If the Sabres do end up making the playoffs this year it will speed up their chances at winning a Stanley Cup. Its going to be very fun to watch this young team grow and develop into a contender. My prediction, Stanley Cup Champions in 2019.
All in all, in my opinion the Buffalo Sabres will be the first team to break the Buffalo drought and will bring this city its first major sports championship since the Bills were 1965 AFL Champions.
As for the Bills, this is another team that has entered “Win Now Mode.” As stated earlier, the Bills finally have an established quarterback in Tyrod Taylor for the first time since Jim Kelly retired in 1996. Taylor had a strong 2015 breakout season where he threw for 3,035 yards, adding 20 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Taylor also rushed for 568 yards with 5 rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, last season Taylor missed two key games in week six and week seven, that both resulted in losses that eventually kept the Bills out of playoff contention.
Due too his elusiveness and running ability, Taylor can make things happen not only with his arm, but with his legs. The best part of Taylor is that he can turn a broken play into positive yards. However, his running ability was also what caused him to get hurt and miss those two weeks. If Tyrod can stay healthy and be more careful on the ground, look for him to start all if 2016. In fact, Taylor playing all 16 games would be the first by a Bills’ quarterback since Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2012.
In 2015, the Bills also lead the league in rushing and have a great 1-2 backfield with running backs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams. Both McCoy and Williams hurt opposing defenses with their shiftiness and speed. With a great backfield duo like this, the Bills won’t have any problem at all moving the ball on offense. If this group can stay healthy, as both backs were injured last season throughout the year, they will give the bills the upper hand on the ground every week.
Defense was a problem last year for the Bills. When Rex Ryan was announced as the team’s new head coach in January of 2015, fans and analysts alike were certain Buffalo would have an aggressive blitz happy defensive scheme. After leading the year in sacks the previous two years before Ryan was hired, Buffalo’s defensive sack total took a huge drop in 2015 where they only registered 21 sacks. Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams lead Buffalo’s “Cold Front: defensive line with only 5 sacks a piece. The most stressful situation in 2015 occurred where defensive linemen Williams and Rex Ryan had an apparent falling out, where instead of rushing the passer, Williams was asked to drop back in coverage during multiple plays. This angered Williams and reports were released that plays called him out after the season in which he supposedly did not try and took plays off throughout the year. Williams was cut by Buffalo in the offseason where he signed a new deal with the Miami Dolphins shorty after.
Williams leaving does not affect this defensive line at all. The Bills still have young pass rushers in Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus and drafted defensive end from Clemson, Shaq Lawson. Lawson will likely be out until week 5 with a shoulder injury, but fits the scheme with his ability to drop into coverage and rush at the same time. I think Ryan’s 2016 defense will be better this season with the fact that Williams is gone which will hopefully take care of any locker room tensions. Not too mention, their secondary is anchored by two lockdown corners in Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore.
After having a disappointing 2015 when promising a playoff berth, Rex Ryan and his coaching staff will certainly be on the hot seat. However, Rex should learn from his previous mistakes last season as the Bills have a solid core returning for the upcoming season. This team certainly has the talent to be a playoff team, but it will all come down to staying healthy. After a hopeful playoff run this season and if the defense plays up to its potential, the Buffalo Bills can have a very good chance to party with the Sabres in downtown Buffalo. My prediction, Super Bowl Champions in 2020.
Theres no doubt that Buffalo sports are on the rise, if things go as planned, expect celebrations in back-to-back years.