We don’t yet know the name of the man who will rebuild the Buffalo Sabres, but his course of action, it seems, couldn’t be clearer.
Sooner rather than later, new Sabres president of hockey operations, Pat LaFontaine, will hire somebody to sit at the general manager’s desk previously occupied by Darcy Regier. About five minutes after that person memorizes his new phone number and finds out where the men’s room is, he’s expected to start canvassing the league to find out what kind of return three pending unrestricted free agents – Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and Matt Moulson – might fetch.
Parlaying veterans on expiring contracts for picks and prospects is Rebuilding 101. And typically, we’re all for teams going all in when it’s time to turn the soil. But in this specific instance, there’s a case to be made for keeping a trio of players who each have something undeniably Buffalo about them.
Starting at the top, no player this side of Nail Yakupov has been linked to more trade rumours this season than Miller. The asking price when Regier was doing the bargaining was said to be astronomical – as in, two first-rounders and a second – and if the Sabres can squeeze that out of a team desperate for goaltending, pulling the trigger might be the only option. Not to be overlooked in this equation, however, is the fact Miller is playing fantastic hockey for an awful team. If the Olympics kicked off tomorrow, he’d be starting for Team USA, as he did in 2010. That same season, he won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder, and while that kind of feels like a decade ago with all that’s gone on in western New York since then, at 33, Miller still looks like he could remain a top-flight goalie for five-plus years. That means, for a last half of a new deal, he could be playing on a strong club.
That Miller will end his career somewhere else feels like a bit of a foregone conclusion, but he’s also a lifelong Sabre who backstopped the team through its last high tide, when Buffalo made back-to-back Eastern Conference final appearances in 2006 and ’07. Given the hiring of LaFontaine and old/new coach Ted Nolan, the Sabres are obviously conscious of employing people who have a history with the team. Why not extend that to the ice and see if a guy who plays the position better than anyone you’re likely to find as a replacement wants to stick around to finish what he started?
As for Moulson, he landed in Buffalo when Regier made his last big transaction with the club, shipping another guy who was headed to the open market, Thomas Vanek, to the New York Islanders for a big return that also included a conditional first-rounder and a second in 2015. (If the Isles end up with a top-10 pick this summer, they can defer giving their first selection to Buffalo for one year.) Just dealing with the draft picks for a moment, the Sabres chose 12th and 14th overall in 2012, selected five times in the first two rounds last summer, and have a total of nine more picks in the first two rounds of 2014 and 2015. That’s just about an entire junior roster right there. Certainly, the more young blood you have around, the more likely it is you’ll cultivate stars, but by the same token, there’s already a pretty serious cache of kids and picks to start with. Wouldn’t the organization be better served if a guy like Moulson, whose underdog story is the kind of thing they like in Buffalo, might be interested in sticking around to show the up-and-comers a thing or two about fighting for goals around the net, while playing just an hour or so down the road from his Toronto-area home?
In the case of Ott, his edgy style plays very well in a blue-collar town, and is a big reason he was named the team’s captain earlier this year. If you want fans to keep forking over money during the rough times, you better ice a couple guys who are simply incapable of not giving it everything they have on a nightly basis. Ott fits that bill.
Teams that undergo massive rebuilds always talk about not allowing a "culture of losing" to creep in. That’s why management types are loath to use terms like tanking. Often you’ll see young clubs go out and add a veteran or two known for their tenacious approach, even when it means keeping a developing player off the roster. That’s what the Calgary Flames did last week when they brought in Ladislav Smid from Edmonton. If Buffalo is inevitably going to go out and find a few guys like that to act as tutors for the younger players, why not try to keep the ones they already have?
Of course, this only works under the condition that Miller, Moulson and Ott have a keen interest in staying with Buffalo. None of them have won a Cup before and it’s completely understandable if they’d prefer to bolt.
But if they’re open to a rebuild that could have the Sabres back in the hunt in a couple years, there’s something to be said for having them stick around. Besides, Buffalo has plenty of picks and prospects already; it could use some capable people to light the way.