The season before the first Winter Classic, the Sabres had a league-best 53 wins, paced by the offensive prowess of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, and they advanced to the conference finals for a second consecutive year. They have not won a playoff series since and have not reached the postseason since 2011.
Despite gaining high draft picks that yielded the heralded forwards Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, the Sabres are struggling even more under their first-year coach, Phil Housley. He is the team’s fifth coach in six seasons.
But when it came to planning the Winter Classic’s 10th anniversary, those troubles did not matter to the N.H.L. or NBC Sports.
“The Sabres deserve this,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports. “They were the ones that took the risk. The Sabres were the club that stepped up and turned it into a must-see TV moment. I think it changed the way hockey was viewed.”
Jason Pominville, now an elder statesman with the Sabres at 35, recalled being awed participating in the first Winter Classic. He expressed confidence that the Sabres would bring a spirited effort to the national audience despite their dismal record.
“It’s easy to get motivated for these type of games,” said Pominville, a former Sabres captain. “You have to put aside the fact we’re not playing the way we would want to, and just go out there and enjoy it.”
The Sabres pinned their hopes on Eichel, who came out of the once-in-a-generation draft class in 2015 that included Connor McDavid, the league’s reigning most valuable player. Eichel has been among the team’s offensive leaders in his first three seasons, but he has not had the impact in the standings that McDavid has had in Edmonton.
Pominville said he understood the microscope Eichel was under and hoped national attention could inspire his young teammate. Eichel, 21, recently signed a 10-year, $80 million contract extension that begins next season.
“He deserves to be there on the big stage,” Pominville said of Eichel, who has 15 goals this season. “He’s a guy who handles it well. He’s an elite player.”
Eichel, who is from North Chelmsford, Mass., said he was excited by the…