Ive been trying to write this post for a long time now. Every time I do, it devolves into a Lindy Ruff post, which is not my intention. But basically, Ruff was a great coach for the scrappy small-market sabres, getting the most out of players coming to Buffalo with a chip on their shoulder. The importance of the Pegula transition can not be overstated. Its the introduction of an entirely new operating model. It effects the way you draft, it effects the players you retain, and it effects the players you bring in. As I have said before, this effects the GM more than anyone else, as it is a completely new set of rules for Darcy to play with. Yet, I see Ruff as the first victim of the switch. The staleness of his coaching message, was secondary to the larger issue that he is just better suited to coach the types of players that Buffalo's old operating model seemed to attract.
Again, this is not a Lindy Ruff post, let me get to the point. With Lindy's dissmissal, the team is more flexible than ever. They are no longer tied to Ruff's system and coaching style. This makes this one of the most dynamic times in recent memory. I think many of us have felt that the Sabres have been stuck in the mud between a truly bad rebuilding team, and a perennial contender. That leaves us in the mix for the final playoff spot, and without a realistic chance of making a true run at the Cup. As I have also said before, I personally feel that Darcy is a pretty savy GM, and has amassed significant organizational assets in recent years. Yet, I think the clock is ticking. He continues to be stuck inbetween the old core and the new. The question is does he think that his big 3 of Vanek, Miller, and Pominville warrant the dedication of his organizational assets to supporting players who could make a cup run a reality, or should he sell 1, 2, or 3 of these pieces to build a contender based around Girgs, Hodgson, Girgs, Ennis, Foligno, Meyers, McNabb, etc. I think it is a good question, and don't necessarily know what I think. Quite frankly, I don't know that I really care one way or the other, but I will say that I think in light of the recent losing, the fanbase would be more open to blowing it up and rebuilding than ever in recent memory.
Next season will be the final year on the contracts of Miller, Vanek and Pominville. Unless something major changes in the next 1.5 season, I would imagine 2-3 of them would likely walk to a contender, and I wouldnt blame them. Miller especially strikes me as a guy who would kill to have a shot at the cup. LIkewise, I think even a sniff would propel him into the all-world beast mode we have seen from him at times in the past. While there was a lot of chatter about his game last year during his apparent concussion, I think his numbers sometimes hide that he is still a top 5 goalie on any given night in the NHL and has been a remarkably consistent preformer between the pipes (in a position that is rife with streaky, head case kind of guys). Clearly, I think the world of the guy, but If he was traded to a contender, I wouldn't even be that upset. To me he is a generational American talent, who will rot on an underperformer unless something drastic happens soon. For the Sabres however, that would create a massive vacuum on the backend, so the return better include a goalie, or pretty amazing talent in return. I think at this point it would take a first rounder + a prospect or player with upside to get me excited about a Miller trade.
No move would say rebuild more than trading Thomas Vanek. HGTV has been All-World this season, putting the team on his back for long stretches. Clearly, Vanek is the best skater on this team at the moment, and his trade value might be higher than ever. The market benchmark would have to be Rick Nash, who garnered an incredible haul for his services (including 2 top six forwards, a top 4 defensive prospect, and a first round pick). The Sabres would not expect the same in return, despite similar career statistics (Vanek is a year older, does not have that power forward size, has had a better team around him, and most importantly could walk at the end of next season.) Yet, at this point the return on Vanek prior to a playoff run would be huge. We would probably expect a 1st round pick, a top six forward, and a very good prospect in return. His pure scoring ability would be impossible to replicate immediately, but If you believe that guys like Grigorenko and Armia will produce at close to 1 PPG in the future, this might be a deal worth making.
Pominville in my opinion is the most expendable of the 3 and would likely garner the least in return. That is not to say he is not a great player and an asset to this team. Yet, he lacks the explosiveness to carry a team in scoring, and is not at all physical. He is the team's captain, but he isn't Rolston's pick or any one else who may fill the coaching spot in the future. From the perspective of a contender looking to buy at the end of this season, you get rock solid scoring depth, quiet leadership, a guy who wont hurt you taking penalties, can play in all situations, and wont be disruptive to team chemistry. Trading Pommer at the deadline might be the least damaging sale Darcy could make, while still building assets for his future club.
To the contrary, Darcy could say, elite scoring and goaltending don't grow on trees, lets sell some of our redundant prospect trail/ young talent and make the amalgamation of random talent into 4 lines and 6 D-Men that are suited to their roles, and could legitamately make a push deep into the playoffs. Personally, I don't think this would be bad, I just think that this is much harder to do in a short amount of time. Also, I think if this is the way you choose to go, this has to be coupled with contract extensions for Vanek and Miller. What you don't want is a repeat of Drury/Briere. Giving up organizational talent for nothing is how organizations get set back. But if I'm Miller or Vanek, I want to see a little assurance that this team has what it takes, besides me, to go the distance.
To this end, the Sabres do have a lot of valuable options. I will continue to harp on the fact that a lack of a natural 2-way centerman capable of winning draws and eating minutes, is killing the team. I like Ennis and I like Hogdson, but to me they are very redundant. If you bring in a 2 way guy, and slide Ennis back to the wing, I think the team is instantly better. Likewise if you deal Ennis for the same kind of a 2-way guy, you are still better off. Other forwards on the roster, to me, won't bring return large enough to make the team better. Guys like Gerbe and Kaleta are worth more in Buffalo than on the market, and you would be selling insanely low on Stafford at this point (Ditto (even a healthy) Lleino). I think the defense if full of guys who could be moved for the right price. I dont think the team is married to anyone outside of Meyers and Ehrhoff. Sekera is probably the best guy for trade value at this point, but I think a lot of people might be surprised by what could be gotten for some of the capable but not wowing guys like Leopold, Weber, Regher, Pardy, Brennan, etc. To me, it is the prospect pool that would get a big deal done. Grigorenko to me should be untouchable, and his medicore tape is likely to make his value less than fair. Girgensons, Armia, McNabb and Pysyk are obviously well regarded, as would be McCabe and Gauthier-Leduc at lesser value but with long term upside. In summary if Darcy believes in his group long term, he makes Ennis, the host of DMen, and much of the prospect pool available and brings in difference makers he believes will get the job done. Also, a top draft pick should be on the table, as last years double dip lets you go one year without adding top-end talent.
After considering all these options, I am personally leaning towards the sell-off. I just think it would take some serious wizardry to get a long term defensive center, other pieces that would significantly improve the team, and at the same time convince Miller and Vanek to stay on board well through the primes of there stand-out careers. If that is the route Darcy and ownerships opts to take, you gotta slide 25 into a top 2 center spot, and let him play out the season. Same for guys like Brennan and McNabb. Need to make the best assessment possible before heading into the draft with multiple picks.