rebuild through the draft surge strategy: pegula, regier and revisionist thinking

For all the criticism Regier has received from fans and sports columnists (Bucky Gleason come on down) there has been little attention to how the rebuild strategy is unfolding. Indeed, taking Regier at his word, it would appear to be in good shape.

The Sabres made a decision that the free agency path to Stanley Cup wins was littered with colossal failures. They were chastened by the lessons learned from Pegula's first off season of trades and free agent moves. They seemed to have come to their senses early last lockout plagued season when they fired Lindy Ruff and then traded two veteran defensemen and a star forward who was also their captain.

Most New York Islander fans are skeptical their team won the most recent Regier engineered trade sending Sabres top scorer and captain Thomas Vanek to their squad for high scoring two way star Moulson. Many of the fans at various blog sites and comment sections below articles discussing the details of the trade and its possible pros and cons noted that Moulson was not going to receive a free agent offer from the Islanders anywhere near what he was looking for (5-6 million yr range for a long term deal), but they stressed the player they really needed was Miller not Vanek.

The consensus was Islander needs are primarily defense and goaltending, not offense. Plus, there is widely shared sense that Vanek will not resign with the Islanders, meaning he must be traded before the playoffs if they cannot convince him to sign a long term deal there.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the trade for the Sabres and Islanders, it is clear that Regier wants to stockpile draft picks and receive players that can step on the ice and play for the Sabres as soon as possible. But at the same time, Regier is doing what no other GM has ever done in Sabres history: collect a massive motherload of 1st and 2nd round picks over the next few yrs. He deserves some credit for trading very well the mix of players he/we knew were not good enough to help the Sabres win the cup.

If Regier fails at this draft surge strategy, it will not be for the lack of ingenuity or creativity. But there is another angle which we need to keep in mind. Regier is making these deals with the full consent of the ownership. No GM operates in an organizational vacuum. If Regier was on the hotseat, he sure does not act like it. On the contrary, he is acting like a GM in full power and control of his organization and his office.

I am not sure the Bucky Gleasons of the world can assess fairly what is going on inside the Sabres organization. Because it appears, despite rumors of his impending dismissal, he is still free to make huge deals with the Sabres top assets, and in doing so, to leave the rest of the league's fans shaking their heads in stunned appreciation for his magical powers of extracting a King's Ransom.

Perhaps we are too quick to judge the embattled GM. And it would appear we are too quick to judge his impending doom as GM of the Sabres.

Now what is it about the Regier rethinking of the rebuild that deserves our attention?

After not being able to sign coveted free agents under previous ownership, and not being able to resign free agents we had on our roster, Regier was handed tons of cash to go hog wild in Pegula's first off season despite the fact, widely discussed at the time, that the pickins were slim to none. He did what he was instructed to do and, like a gambler flush with cash, overpaid for 2nd rate talent at defense and forward in hopes of making a run at the cup with a veteran squad and a highly seasoned and widely respected coach in Lindy Ruff.

The experiment failed miserably, with all the new acquisitions and many of the veterans performing at career worst levels.

The lockout generated a weird off season for the entire league, and when the Sabres came out stinking up the joint in the first six weeks, it was clear something was not right behind the bench and in the locker room. The team was not good enough, and it was certainly not a contender for the only prize that matters to Pegula.

A rethink was in order. Regier was entrusted with the strategic reassessment. And here we are.

Now, is it accurate for Regier to say the rebuild began with the Gaustad trade? Perhaps it is, perhaps it is 20-20 hindsight. We can forgive Regier if he had his doubts confirmed before the lockout shortened season began or shortly before it ended. Like most people, he was most likely struggling with the gap between what he wanted to believe and what his players/team's on ice performance was indicating.

Perhaps he and Ruff felt the 2nd yr with the new free agent talent would yield the fruit that failed to ripen during the first season. Perhaps the lockout accelerated the change in thinking. Perhaps the lockout had deeper effects on the team's chemistry,

Perhaps Ruff was more responsible for the failure of the new veteran squad, as many fans believed, than the trades Regier had made with the stimulation of the newly christened Pegula cash cow ownership.

Whatever the mix of causes, the facts were clear to most inside and outside the organization that Humpty Dumpty had taken a terrible fall and there was no way Ruff was putting it back together again.

Regier was left to rethink the matter with the new ownership, together facing their first major crisis after parts of just three seasons together.

We know Ruff was fed up before the lockout season began, at the end of the previous season. He seemed to despise parts of his veteran core, as evidenced by his well publicized and widely critiqued tongue lashing at the players at practice the day before the final and meaningless game against the Bruins on the road in the spring of 2012.

Missing the playoffs was considered totally unacceptable, but the fact is the players had fought hard in the final few months to make a go of it, despite a horrendous mid season stretch when they lost twelve straight road games, an all time Sabres' record in away from home futility.

It was clear from TV game camera shots of the bench that the players had tuned their head coach out. Whatever comeback they made that year was more due to their own efforts than anything their coach had done to change his way of being. The glassy eyed stares of the players spoke volumes, and additional chapters of discontent with the coach came out as the players cleaned out their lockers at the end of another season without the playoffs.

It was time for a change, and by the following post lockout spring of 2013, there was no longer any doubt the Sabres were an exhausted and defeated team of professionals. Even with inferior talent, with no heart, there was no chance.

Radical restructuring was in order. Regier and Pegula would go where no Sabres ownership/management had ever gone before.


Now step back and think about the game of hockey more generally. Why stick with what is not working? And why assume the GM cannot make the strategic changes required to produce a winner?

The game of hockey is cranking out top talent at a record pace from across the globe. The NHL is not expanding the number of teams in the league. There is some level of competition now from the Russian and European leagues, but the best still want to make it in the NHL first and foremost.

So much talent, and so few places to strike it rich. Free agents always earn a premium, yet the model for success for most of the recent winners in the league points to the drafting process grounded in a period of poor NHL performance required to stockpile the highest picks possible. This is the model of Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston, to name only the most obvious recent Cup winners and now current powerhouses and consistent contenders.

Beyond the centrality of building through the draft and selectively recruiting core veterans through free agency to surround the superstar youth groomed within the organization from the draft going forward, the teams exhibiting this successful model play a wide variety of on ice styles. In sum, it is not how you play so much as who you play that makes the difference.

These teams' recent success is not an accident of history, but a reflection of the new talent pool and the quickening path to the NHL level. If ever there was a time to stock up on high draft picks, especially in light of recent salary cap restrictions, this is it. Players are bigger and faster than even five years ago. The youth training regimes are vastly superior to what they were a decade ago.

Teams are getting younger because, as we see in the NFL as well, it is difficult to pay for a team of veterans that are not on the downside as opposed to the upside of their careers and therefore to be able to guess right often enough via free agency to make the expensive acquisitions worth their relative hit to the salary cap.

Try out ten top 10 picks over 3-5 seasons and see how many become established pros or better, stars. Lock them up over the bulk of their best years, especially in light of the new free agency rules, and build a team that can afford to compete for the cup over many years.

Indeed, one of the sticking points of recent labor negotiations was over the free agency rules, as well as salary abitration rights. Ryan Miller said the players wanted to protect the middle class veterans from being too easily sacrificed by the free agent star system on one end and the massive influx of cheap talented youth on the other end.

The game is going younger, bigger, faster, and more skilled, and the secret is, or so the revisionist thinking goes, to stock up on draft picks by any means necessary. In doing so, you increase your chances of grooming elite talent and putting a core team of talented draft picks on the ice for many years together, blending elite young talent with the chemistry which comes from growing together under a common organizational system of development.

Regier may not be loved by the fans, much less local sportswriters, but that is not his job.His job is to be a cold calculating evaluator of talent and their relative value on the ice and as commodities for purchase and sale. Has he made some mistakes along the way? Of course he has, as all GMs have. Did the Sabres need to clean house? Without question, especially after a few of their forays into free agency failed to deliver the prize.

The next few yrs will determine whether Regier was right or wrong about the tools required for a successful rebuild.

I see nothing in the trades he has made, beginning with the Gaustad deal, to indicate he is not the GM for the job.

The Sabres have hauled in an impressive collection of high draft picks in a short period of time.

They currently have all five of their most recent 1st round picks in the starting lineup, and a 6th 1st rounder on imjured reserve waiting to get into the lineup upon getting healthy.

This team is young and talented, and there are many more such players coming soon over the course of the next few yrs.

Sabre fans should be patient but excited about the possibilities moving forward.

Regier haters cannot afford to be patient, for fear that his strategy of rebuilding through the draft through massive rapid accumulation of high picks actually delivers the results.

Perhaps this underlies the incessant personal attacks and distorted history peddled by the likes of Bucky Gleason, who has sunk so low as to dismiss even the successes the Sabres experienced under GM Regier as being due to the previous GM, or in the case of the more recent run with Briere and Drury to an "accident" of NHL rules changes, not the trades and management of the roster Regier was obviously fully responsible for.

Is it possible Regier really is the smartest guy in the room? Only time will tell. But if his trading skill is any indication, it would be the height of foolishness to continue underestimating his abilities to adapt to the new circumstances of the NHL game.


Sabres have a combined 17 first- and second-round picks over a four-year span from 2012-2015 – the most in the 43-year history of the Sabres’ franchise.

1st round: Mikhail Grigorenko (12th overall), Zemgus Girgensons (14th)
2nd round: Jake McCabe (44th overall)

1st round: Rasmus Ristolainen (8th), Nikita Zadorov (16th)
2nd round: J.T. Compher (35th), Connor Hurley (38th), Justin Bailey (52nd)

1st round: 2 picks (own, NYI- Vanek trade)
2nd round: 3 picks (own, MINN- Pominville trade, LA- Regehr trade)

1st round: 1 pick (own)
2nd round: 3 picks (own, LA- Regehr trade, NYI- Vanek trade)

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