By Allan Muir
The crew over at Sportsnet generated a lot of online buzz between periods on Tuesday night when Nick Kypreos suggested that the Buffalo Sabres had planted the For Sale sign and would “dearly love to move” Ville Leino and Ryan Miller.
First, Leino is going nowhere. The Sabres could package him with their 2013 first rounder — a likely top-five pick — and ask for nothing more than Gary Bettman’s phone number in exchange, and they still wouldn’t find a taker. No team is going to assume the four years and $18 million remaining on a deal for a player who scored eight goals last season and has yet to play in 2013 due to a hip injury. That albatross will remain around GM Darcy Regier’s neck for as long as he’s allowed to steer this ship.
As for Miller? The moody netminder has been rumored to be on the block before. So what’s different now?
Well, the story isn’t so much that the Sabres want to move him as it is that he might be ready to move on. And he might not be alone.
As Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason notes, Miller is headed for unrestricted free agency at the end of next season. So are top forwards Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. Right there are the three players most responsible for any success, however limited, the Sabres have enjoyed this season. And given the current state of disarray in Buffalo, Gleason wonders if there’s any reason to believe that they are willing to re-sign with the team.
Now, I understand the regard some Buffalo fans hold for Gleason, so hold the emails. What he writes is not as important as what the players themselves are saying. And right now, they’re saying they don’t have a lot of faith in the direction of the franchise…or they don’t have a clue what that direction is.
“Do we become a younger team or do we become a team that’s going to build and try to get this core group of guys a chance to move forward?” Miller asked. “Or are we not the core anymore? Who knows?”
Vanek was less circumspect in his response.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said of his future with the team. “Stay here or move on? At the end of the day, it’s the team’s decision. I haven’t heard from them. But, yeah, you think about different situations.”
Think about different situations. That blunt enough for you, Sabres fans?
Those are the words of a player who feels no compulsion to sugarcoat things. Not that Vanek should be happy with the team’s current situation, but there was an opportunity there for a good solider to offer a far less provocative response, something along the lines of, “Yeah, things are tough now, but I’m looking forward to being here long-term to help turn things around.”
That he instead offered something so painfully honest puts the ball directly in Regier’s court. And he’s been through this before.
If the goal really is to win the Stanley Cup — and as much as fans wish it were so, that’s not always the case — then Regier needs to give Miller’s question serious thought. Can this group challenge for a title in three or four years? Because the window doesn’t extend much beyond that.
Miller is about to turn 33. Pominville will be 31, and Vanek 30 next season. In terms of production, they’re approaching the point of diminishing returns and none of them will be accepting a pay cut when their contracts are up next summer. They currently count for nearly $19 million against the cap. Any kind of raise and they’ll combine for a third of next season’s lower cap.
The timing and the money don’t add up unless a victory parade is right around the corner. That’s why it makes sense to move one or more of these players before they move themselves. And the time to maximize the return is now since the acquiring team will be buying a full year of service and first crack at getting the player signed to an extension.
Risky? Sure. But take a look at the Sinkhole at the Saddledome. Calgary is what happens when you hold on for too long.
Miller seems like the obvious choice to go first. He’s not the golden (sorry, silver) boy he was in Vancouver, but he can be a difference-maker anywhere he’s not asked to do it all by himself.
Of course the demand for expensive, aging goalies is on par with Detroit real estate, so the return won’t be huge if the Sabres can find a taker. And Regier would need to find another puckstopper, preferably a young one with some upside, because Jhonas Enroth is not the answer. It would be a step back between the pipes, but at least it would send a clear signal about the direction of the team.
Vanek, the league’s leading scorer in the early going, and Pominville, who has caught my eye every time I’ve watched Buffalo this season, would be tougher to move emotionally. But a franchise that was staggered by the free agent defections of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in the past can’t afford to gamble that its current offensive stars won’t do the same. If they can’t be extended, the time to put them on the market is now.
You can argue that Regier shouldn’t be the one entrusted with an overhaul of this magnitude. I’d say the same. But all indications are that owner Terry Pegula thinks Regier is the bees knees when it comes to running a hockey team, so he’s calling the shots.
That has to be a little scary for Sabres fans. But so’s the thought of how much worse things could get if the plan is to hope things turn out better this time.