NHL Free Agency 2014: Are the Sabres now "too good" to finish last?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Murray brought in a number of talented veterans to Buffalo during a big day of free agency, but in doing so, did he jeopardize the Sabres chances to draft a generational player in 2015?

On June 27, 2014, one half of a dream was realized when the Buffalo Sabres drafted Sam Reinhart with the #2 pick, and added a number of other excellent prospects thanks to their bevy of second round draft picks. Their impressive haul of promising young players was the reward for a job well done by new GM Tim Murray, as he burned a franchise to the ground and laughed through the flames put his stamp on the long-awaited rebuild of the Buffalo Sabres.

However, the other half of that dream - the more important half - was to finish dead last in 2015, thus guaranteeing the Sabres either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, two generational players who come pre-packaged with multiple Stanley Cup championships. After trading away all of their talented veterans last year (sorry, Jamie McBain) the Sabres were poised to finish comfortably in last place again in 2015, thus completing their race to the bottom, and fulfilling their tanking destiny.

Then, on July 1, 2014, with the Sabres needing to spend over $20 million to get to the cap floor, Tim Murray brought in a number of talented veteran players to fill key holes for the Sabres, and their skill, combined with the improvement of young players and the possible addition of Reinhart to the NHL roster has fans wondering - are the Sabres too good to finish last?

Four and a half years ago, when I started this gig writing about the Buffalo Sabres, I never dreamed I'd end up writing a post analyzing whether the team I loved would have the audacity to improve enough to finish in - gasp! - 27th place, but here we are. Without further ado, let's take a look at what the Sabres brought in and who they shipped out from last year to this year, in order to see whether they might be so ungodly talented as to finish 13th in the East.

Note: All in/out transactions are retroactive to the 2013-14 trade deadline, and deal with players still under contract to Buffalo.

Who's In

Player Position Goals/GAA Assists/SV% Points Role on team
Matt Moulson LW 23 28 51 Someone has to score, right?
Brian Gionta RW 18 22 40 Obi-Wan-like mentor to the youngsters
Chris Stewart RW 15 11 26 Drew Stafford 2.0
Nic Deslauriers LW 1 0 0 Asskicker
Torrey Mitchell C 2 8 10 ??????????????
Andrej Meszaros D 7 15 22 Trade deadline bait, Ehrhoff-lite
Josh Gorges D 1 13 14 To be what Mike Weber should have been
Michal Neuvirth G 2.78 0.921 Take over during Enroth's annual 10-game losing streak
Samson Reinhart? C To be the very best Like no one ever was One of three guys you'll care about watching next year.

At first glance, this seems like a decent crop of free agents for any team, let alone a last-place team to bring in. However, Matt Moulson was here for most of last season, so the addition of his goal scoring ability is basically a wash. Gionta and Stewart will both bring much-needed secondary scoring and talent on the wing, while the addition of Meszaros and Gorges will bring talent and leadership to what was a very thin, young back end. Reinhart could be the big difference maker if he's ready to make the leap into the NHL, giving the Sabres a legitimate second line center behind Tyler Ennis.

Who's Out

Player Position Goals/GAA Assists/SV% Points Role on team
Thomas Vanek LW 27 41 68 Eater of worlds
Steve Ott C 9 14 23 COMPETE
Ville Leino Scratch 0 15 15 Scapegoat, lightning rod, eater of hot dogs
John Scott ? 1 0 1 Nuclear detereHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
Matt D'Agostini RW 5 7 12 GRIT
Zenon Konpka C 1 2 3 Bunny enthusiast, faceoff specialist
Cory Conacher LW 7 19 26 False hope
Christian Ehrhoff D 6 27 33 Top pairing, top minutes, top Corsi
Jamie McBain D 6 11 17 Tank driver, goalie injurer
Henrik Tallinder D 2 6 8 Elder statesman, fond memories of 2005-06
Ryan Miller G 2.72 0.923 (Stats with Buffalo) Game stealer, locker room leader

Looking back on the last year, the Sabres got rid of a number of bad hockey players, and a few very good ones. Thomas Vanek's scoring touch and ability to single-handedly carry the team for long stretches will be missed, as will Steve Ott's locker room leadership, and even the gritty play of Matt D'Agostini and Hank Tallinder. Not being missed at all will be Ville Leino, John Scott, and Zenon Konopka, all of whom can be classified as "addition by subtraction".

But the absence of two players in particular will mean more to Buffalo's fate next year than any others - Christian Ehrhoff and Ryan Miller. Ehrhoff, who was unceremoniously bought out a few days ago, served as the Sabres best defenseman eating up the most minutes, playing in all situations, and never complaining despite obviously being unhappy with his situation. Ehrhoff was also the King of the Fancy Stats in Buffalo. His CorsiRel was highest on the team despite playing against the second-toughest QoC among defensemen and having the second-worst QoT among blueliners. In layman's terms, it means that he produced a ton of offense (relatively speaking) against tough opponents while playing with crap linemates. Meszaros can fill some of that void, but Ehrhoff's production and versatility will undoubtedly be missed.

Through 17 games in December and January, when he posted a sparkling .938 save percentage on the worst NHL team in over a decade, Ryan Miller was the Sabres.

And now we come to the biggest hole in the Buffalo lineup this season - the absence of Ryan Miller. National pundits can joke all they want about how Miller failed in St. Louis and how his generous new contract in Vancouver is undeserved, but if you think Enroth and Neuvirth can adequately fill Miller's skates, just ask yourself how many times last season you said something like, "Man, Ryan Miller is single-handedly keeping the Sabres in this game." Despite facing an ungodly number of shots playing for the Sabres, Miller managed to kep Buffalo in the game almost every night, and he forced overtime 13 times, winning 9 of those games. He stole six shootout wins, and had a better record than everyone except Tim Thomas and Marc-Andre Fleury in the skills competition. Through 17 games in December and January when he posted a sparkling .938 save percentage on the worst NHL team in over a decade, Ryan Miller was the Sabres.

Can Enroth and Neuvirth replace the excellence and consistency that Miller displayed through the first half of last season? Possibly, just as it's possible that Chris Stewart could regain his 25-goal pace from 2013, Brian Gionta could have a hometown resurgence, Tyler Myers could finally get out of his own head and be a #1 defenseman, Zemgus Girgensons could make a big offensive leap, Sam Reinhart could win the Calder Trophy, and everyone will stay totally healthy over an 82-game season. How many more wins next season would all of that be good for on this team - five more? Ten?

Even if every single thing breaks right for Buffalo next year, they still finished last year FOURTEEN POINTS out of 29th place. They were an incredible 25 points out of 27th place - the Sabres could win 12 more games this year and still finish third-worst in the league. And look at the other teams in the basement: Florida will certainly be better next year after this offseason, and Edmonton can't be much worse next year with the talent they have. Calgary is, well, Calgary, but they still finished TWENTY FIVE POINTS ahead of Buffalo.

Folks, if you're worried that Tim Murray ruined the rebuild by getting too good during free agency, stop. Will the Sabres be better next year? Probably, a little bit. Will they be ten games better after losing their three best players from last season (as well as their three worst) and bringing in some not-quite-as-good replacements? Most likely not.

What Murray's done is ensured that a foundation is in place for future success. A foundation that includes proven, productive veteran leadership in Moulson, Gionta, and Gorges that will already be there when the like of Reinhart, Grigorenko, Armia, Larsson, Lemieux, Compher, Fasching, Zadorov, McCabe, and whoever they draft next year are ready to contribute to a playoff push. Those youngsters will be the ones eventually driving this rebuild, not the veterans, and the kids aren't getting their learner's permits until next year at the earliest.

The Sabres should be more fun to watch next year, and they might even win a few more games. But this team is still one big year away from anything resembling greatness.

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