BUFFALO, N.Y. — Aiming for their first playoff run in 10 years, the Minnesota Wild weren’t afraid to go big and get a player like Jason Pominville for the push.
The Buffalo Sabres saw another opportunity to restock for the future, amid a season that’s fast failing to meet expectations.
The Sabres traded their captain and a fourth-round draft pick in 2014 to the Wild before the NHL deadline on Wednesday for prospects Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett plus a first-round draft pick in 2013 and a second-round draft pick in 2014.
That’s a high price, but the Wild were willing to part with some assets for a valuable two-way player in their attempt to reach the post-season for the first time in five years. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2003.
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier’s high-priced roster has been one of the league’s biggest letdowns this season, in danger of missing the playoffs for a second straight year and the fourth time in six seasons.
"It’s going to involve rolling back a little bit organizationally," Regier said. "Acquire the assets, the players, the draft picks and do it in a way that’s going to allow us to group enough young players together, or players together, in order to win a championship."
Pominville is an eight-year veteran and a six-time 20-goal scorer with significant special teams experience who could join Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise on the Wild’s first line. He played next to Parise in 2008 with the U.S. national team at the world championship.
"We played really well together. I like the way he plays. I think he’s going to help us a lot," Parise said in San Jose, Calif., before the Wild played the Sharks. "He works hard. I just think you look at the way he’s been used. Power play, penalty kill, reliable. He puts pucks in the net, he makes plays, he gets points. I think he plays a really all-around game. That’s what we’re going to see."
After signing Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter to mega-contracts last summer, the Wild went all in. They’ve been accumulating an impressive pool of young skaters in their system, so trading Larsson won’t leave their organization bare. Rookies Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker have been top-six forwards this season, and Mikael Granlund is waiting in the AHL in Houston for a second crack at the lineup.
"It just gives you a sense that they believe in the way we’ve been playing and they believe in our team," Parise said in San Jose. "Now it’s up to us to elevate our game even more."
Pominville is in the second-to-last year of his contract, with a $5.5 million salary each season. The 30-year-old right wing, a second-round draft pick by Buffalo in 2001, had 25 points including 10 goals in 27 games for the Sabres this season. He’s sixth in the NHL with 33 takeaways and 11th in the league with an average of 20 minutes and 53 seconds of ice time per game. He was picked for the All-Star game last year.
"Players like Jason aren’t readily available, and that’s why we paid a significant price in terms of assets in acquiring him," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said in San Jose. "Obviously, Buffalo felt they needed to move in a different direction, and when I spoke to Darcy and found out he might be available we were aggressive in our pursuit."
The Wild play at Los Angeles on Thursday, and Fletcher said the team will try to have Pominville at the arena for the game against the Kings. Whether he’s in the lineup after the cross-country trip has yet to be determined. But whenever he debuts, the Wild will be eager to have him. They’re in third place in the Western Conference, with 3 1/2 weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Wild also acquired goalie Jeff Deslauriers from Anaheim for future considerations and assigned him to Houston, then recalled goalie Darcy Kuemper from the AHL club to be Niklas Backstrom’s backup against the Sharks.
"He’s like a few other players we have on our team like Parise and Koivu and Suter and Backstrom in that he’s a top-line player, but he has a workmanlike mentality," Fletcher said.
Hackett and Larsson will be sent to Buffalo’s AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. The 23-year-old Hackett, a goalie, was a third-round pick in 2009. He has 13 career NHL starts. The 20-year-old Larsson, a forward, was a second-round pick in 2010. He played in one game last season for the Wild.
The underachieving Sabres are retooling for the future after making four trades in the last three weeks, including defencemen Robyn Regehr to Los Angeles and Jordan Leopold to St. Louis over the past five days. Longtime coach Lindy Ruff was fired after a 6-10-1 start, and the Sabres were in 12th place in the Eastern Conference when Wednesday began despite ending Pittsburgh’s 15-game winning streak the day before.
Regier said he wouldn’t use the "r-word" but acknowledged the beginning of a "process" to retool this sputtering team. High draft picks are good way to start.
Regier said he and Fletcher were discussing a different player when Fletcher told him he wanted to focus on Pominville. Regier called the decision "difficult" to trade such an integral piece of the team.
"It’s no fun being where we are. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan or in my position. There’s no enjoyment out of it, but there is an opportunity," Regier said. "And what we’re going to do is seize on the opportunity."