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Buffalo Sabres taking long road to rebuild, but right one

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Matt Moulson (26) may be just another pawn in Sabres road to rebuilding. (USATSI)
Matt Moulson (26) may be just another pawn in Sabres' road to rebuilding.(USATSI)

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Things are dark in Buffalo. Pitch black maybe. The Sabres are trudging through a difficult start, but it was always going to be tough. Maybe no one expected it to be historically bad for the franchise, but this is a team in transition.

Rebuilds are never easy, but when a team has put itself in a hole the size the Sabres have, the climb out is bound to be messy and casualty-filled. Buffalo's management could have continued to plod ahead and hope that every ounce of competitiveness they had left materialized, but it wasn't going to happen.

The hardest part of any rebuild is recognizing when it's time to start. The Sabres may have realized it late, but now that appears to be the direction the franchise is headed in.

This is a mess of general manager Darcy Regier's and owner Terry Pegula's own making and the cleanup is going to be unpleasant, but the good news for Sabres fans – and it's not comforting, really – it has already begun.

What makes the Sabres rebuild so much more interesting is that this looks like it is going to be one that first begins with stripping the club down to the studs and almost starting from scratch. It is the kind that is long and painful, but it may be the only thing Buffalo has left to try and build an eventual contending team. I don't know that we've seen anything quite like it in the salary cap era.

This is probably not where Sabres fans envisioned their team in 2011 when Pegula purchased the team. With his seemingly endless stream of money and a new attitude, the Sabres were now a club that was going to do what it took to bring in free agents and build around a solid core of established players.

Money is great, but money can be misspent, and was it ever in Buffalo.

In the words of home improvement celebrity Mike Holmes, now the Sabres have to “make it right.” In order to make it right, there are no quick fixes.

The demolition takes time, but it began in earnest last year and the wrecking ball took its biggest swing yet on Sunday.

When Regier flipped Thomas Vanek, the team's co-captain and perhaps the best Sabres forward of the last decade , for Matt Moulson, a 2014 first-round pick and a second-rounder in 2015, it was a clear indication that this team is going to take the long road to a rebuild.

Of all the trades Regier has made since last season in particular, the Vanek deal was the one he couldn't get wrong. It had the most potential for massive return and Regier came out even better than perhaps even he could have expected. Getting picks was key, but getting Moulson created a chance to make the Vanek deal an even bigger splash.

As great of an addition Matt Moulson is, his expiring deal means the Sabres would likely have to grossly overpay to keep him. That's undesirable for a team anticipating a lengthy rebuild.

However, as the trade deadline gets closer, Moulson's value, even as a rental, will go up. The former Islander and three-time 30-goal man might give the Sabres a chance to double the return for Vanek.

Regier is an easy and deserved target for the ire of fans and anyone else with an opinion. He made the mess and maybe he doesn't deserve to be the guy that cleans it up, but you have to give him credit for what he's done to position his team for a true rebuild.

In each of the last three seasons, Regier has successfully acquired a first-round draft pick without relinquishing one of his own, leaving the club with two top-30 selections in 2012, 2013 and so far two in 2014.

Not only that, but Regier has managed to haul in 12 total draft picks via trade – 10 of which are second round or higher -- in moves made over the last two seasons, while only giving up one, a fourth-rounder in 2014.

The course has shifted dramatically, and it is probably the only way the Sabres can fix what they broke.

"We had a lot of conversations about this," Sabres president Ted Black told Buffalo radio station WGR in an interview last week. "It isn't as if I walked into [owner] Terry Pegula's office and said, 'We're going to start over.' We talked about this together and decided that if you wanted to build a Stanley Cup champion, you have to put the building blocks in place. The best way to put the building blocks in place is through the draft." (via CBC.ca)

Building through the draft has helped teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago win Stanley Cups in recent years. Many of the key players for the LA Kings's Stanley Cup team were brought up through the draft as well.

Though they're not a Stanley Cup team, the Avalanche are proving how good drafting and finding the right mix can lead to a fairly large turnaround, sometimes even sooner than expected (though the jury is still out on if they can keep this up).

While building through the draft is the most sensible way to form a championship-caliber team, it can be a painfully long process and there are certain risks involved.

The biggest issue with acquiring a bunch of draft picks is that each one carries a fair amount of uncertainty. How each prospect pans out is never an easy thing to predict. Scouts make the best decisions they can on the information they have, but acquiring picks means nothing if those picks don't materialize into not only NHL regulars, but difference makers for a rebuilding team.

The four players the Sabres selected over the last two drafts in the first round all have potential, but probably aren't franchise saviors. Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons were picked up in 2012, while Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov in 2013. That's two quality forwards and two defensemen that should be difference makers down the line, and at the very least, part of the foundation.

Now Buffalo has to find that franchise-altering player.

The Sabres are likely to have a top-three selection going into 2014, a draft pool that looks shallower than the last few, but a nice group at the very top.

Unfortunately for the Sabres, the most promising prospect in the world right now – 16-year-old Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid – is not eligible for this year's draft. Though he is young, most scouts believe had he been eligible, he'd go first-overall this year. That's the type of player that can change a franchise. Whether the Sabres have top-three picks in 2014 or 2015, or both, they have the potential to land one or two of those franchise-savior type guys.

Beyond a complete rebuild in the draft, the Sabres also have to identify which players on the current team are part of the core it will build around because there are pieces that are worth keeping. Among them, Cody Hodgson and Christian Ehrhoff are locked down to fairly reasonable long-term deals. The four teenagers on the team right now help fill out the foundation a little bit, as does 21-year-old blueliner Mark Pysyk, who is showing some potential.

The Sabres don't necessarily have the luxury of deeming any of their current roster untouchable. Everyone should be available for the right price, but if there's a group of players they can focus on as the future, they at least have something to build off of instead of going completely nuclear.

The team will also have to make a decision on Tyler Myers, whose $5.5 million cap hit far exceeds what they're getting out of the former Calder Trophy winner. He's immovable with that contract that runs until 2019, more than likely, so the option of a compliance buyout isn't completely out of the question.

Getting back to this season, Regier still has some solid trade pieces at his disposal, particularly in Moulson and goaltender Ryan Miller who should bring in a solid return. While getting picks is nice, Regier may want to look for young, but established roster players or top prospects. If he wanted, he could also see what kind of value the first-round picks he has now would carry on the trade market, though that may be a shortcut not worth taking.

Still, finding a few “known” entities to fill out more of that core would potentially shorten the timeframe of the rebuild and limit some of the risk of building through the draft.

Once the remaining deals Regier has up his sleeve get done, if they get done, the Sabres have a future to focus on. It becomes about drafting well and, just as importantly, developing their young talent to reach their full NHL potential.

When an organization strips everything down, as Buffalo is in the process of doing, ownership and front-office management have to have the patience to stick with it to the end. Building through the draft is not going to fix a problem tomorrow or even next year. It's going to take time.

The question Terry Pegula also has to ask is if Darcy Regier is the man to lead this rebuild. The fan base seems to have no faith in him and his missteps are well documented. If the Sabres were to fire him, it should have happened a long time ago.

What is somewhat remarkable is that Regier looked like a dead man walking, but even with that in mind, he's managed to trade away players of varying levels of popularity locally and make his team better. Not better now, of course, but better in the long term, with a chance to start fresh.

No one is saying Sabres fans have to like what's happening, because it's not going to be a lot of fun. The corner has already been backed into, though, and there are not a lot of options to get out of it.

Regier has chosen the longest, but probably most sensible route. They say the darkest hour is before the dawn. In Buffalo, it's midnight, but if this works the way it's supposed to, there will be a dawn.

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