Buffalo Sabres can't waste opportunity to rebuild

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

After its deadline deals, Buffalo has to focus on building with homegrown youngsters like Mikhail Grigorenko. (USATSI)
Deadline deals will let Buffalo focus on rebuilding with youngsters like Mikhail Grigorenko. (USATSI)

Darcy Regier didn't want to say it as he met reporters after dealing away Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville on Wednesday evening. The Buffalo general manager even went so far as to tell the gathered media he wouldn't use "the 'R' word." He may not want to say it, but based on the deals Regier made near the trade deadline, Buffalo is in rebuild mode.

It's not a traditional brick-by-brick tear down as teams have employed in the past, but it is undeniable that Buffalo sold pieces of its present in an effort to better its future. Reset, reload, refresh, rebuild, whatever R-word you're most comfortable with, that's what is happening.

The good news is, as a seller in a market full of buyers, it appears the Sabres were the most effective in getting fair value for veteran players, and in some cases maybe above value. All in all, it was a successful trade deadline for a team that has made the playoffs just twice since back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and '07.

Regier has made a series of mistakes in his post that have led the team to the point where changes had to be made. It is important to note, however, based on the deadline moves, Regier isn't covering up those mistakes with more mistakes. Not yet, at least.

Instead of pushing onward with an ineffective roster and putting pride before responsibility, the moves Buffalo made this week represent a noticeable pause. It's an important lateral move to re-evaluate the direction of the franchise, where the holes are and how best to fill them.

The organization is at a crossroads. Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek are still in their elite years and young players like Cody Hodgson have shown promise, but the depth of the roster hasn't materialized in a meaningful way. So it appears it's time to start over.

When Terry Pegula purchased the Sabres and opened up the checkbook for free agency in the summer of 2011, he likely didn't envision his team going in this direction this soon. However, the appropriation of that money in trying to make a splash and send a message to the rest of the league turned out to be a lesson in inefficient spending.

It is because of those moves -- most notably the long-term signing of Ville Leino and perhaps too-rich contract extension of Tyler Myers -- Regier may not have the opportunity to be part of the rebuild as his seat is believed to be awfully toasty in Buffalo.

Even if the end is near for Regier's regime, the refocused direction in which the franchise is headed has a chance to be the right one. It has to be. Instead of aggressively spending in another weaker-than-average free-agent market this summer, the Sabres have to look to a more sensible construction through the draft.

The moves Regier made leave himself (or his successor) with numerous options, which is why Buffalo comes out of this trade deadline as a winner, even in a situation where it had to sell off players -- including its captain.

As Regier described them, draft picks are a form of currency in the NHL. The Sabres netted seven extra picks with trades before the deadline. Among them, a 2013 first-round pick, a second-round pick in 2013, two in 2014, one in 2015 and two fifth-round selections in 2013. On top of that, Regier was able to acquire a pair of quality prospects from Minnesota in goaltender Matt Hackett and forward Johan Larsson. Both should figure into Buffalo's future.

Aside from Pominville, the Sabres only had to give up two defensemen who likely were not part of Buffalo's long-term plans in Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold. Buffalo also traded T.J. Brennan earlier in the year for a fifth-round pick. While the Pominville trade probably stung the most, the return was more than adequate. Regier didn't have to trade the former 30-goal scorer, which gave him more than enough leverage to grab the maximum return, and it appears he did.

The biggest piece the Sabres acquired at the deadline is that first-rounder from Minnesota. Buffalo now has two early picks in a draft that is expected to be relatively top heavy with a wealth of talent. Even second-round draft picks should amount to higher value this year.

Buffalo has two directions it can go with its wealth of draft inventory. One is to simply build through the draft by hanging on to all of the picks or packaging some of them for higher selections on draft day. With picks carrying a higher value around and during the draft, the other option is to trade picks for established NHLers who could perhaps help more immediately.

The second option is likely nothing more than a shortcut. For a team that has perhaps taken one too many shortcuts in recent years to no avail, there would have to be something overwhelming out there to shed the picks.

One look at the top of the NHL standings, however, shows the true value of retaining picks and building from within.

Chicago, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Montreal all have core players who were original draft picks of their organizations. Sometimes it takes a little luck to have high picks in the right years, but the 2013 draft very well could be one of those years. It also requires the team to make good decisions with the picks, which can be easier said than done.

The Sabres have the benefit of having drafted well in recent years, picking up key prospects like forwards Mikhail Grigorenko, Zemgus Girgensons, Joel Armia and defenseman Mark Pysyk, all first-rounders who are likely to play a featured role in the resurgence, if there is to be one.

Should they choose to retain interim bench boss Ron Rolston and bring more young players into the fold, Buffalo has a head coach with a track record of developing elite talent at the college, junior and minor-league level. So there are building blocks already in place. The foundation just needs strengthening.

Where it gets painful is in how to handle Miller and Vanek. Both are eligible to become unrestricted free agents after next season. Both are valuable veterans who are still in the elite years of their careers. Going forward without either would seem difficult, but neither has sounded too keen on being part of a long-term rebuild, if that's what this ends up being.

This offseason, the Sabres will have to consider how to best position themselves with or without those two franchise stars. Both are homegrown talents who could lead to a potentially quicker turnaround if they're retained, but it would require some patience from players who are not getting any younger. That's a lot to ask.

A team isn't going to be made up entirely of drafted players, so there will still be areas in which the team will have to spend some money. The Sabres still have a lot of wiggle room underneath the cap going forward that could allow the organization to be active in free agency and the offseason trade market. In all likelihood, however, the best moves would be to add affordable stopgaps or younger players who could be part of the supporting cast for the long-range vision.

Overspending on free agents or sacrificing picks and prospects in trades would continue this cycle of running in place. The pieces are there to build an elite young core of homegrown players like those of the best teams in hockey this season. That's what can bring the first Stanley Cup to Buffalo.

With Pegula at the helm, there might be no financial limitations on what Buffalo can do, but without patience it will be more of the same.

 
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