Vulgar Opinons: Where The Rebuild Went Wrong
When you look at the roster now compared to what it was even just two years ago it’s been a complete and total dismantling. Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Andrej Sekera, Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, Paul Gaustad, and even Steve Ott are all gone. The only players left over from anything resembling glory days are Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis, and Tyler Myers. For now. The only players on the roster resembling top players are Christian Ehrhoff and several ghosts of Sabres future.
Even if you believe that the roster needs to be set on fire and danced around for the path to start heading upward once more (and there is nothing to indicate this is true, no matter how loud Jeremy White bleats it), that is a startling amount of decay in a short period of time. The Sabres have become Schrodinger’s franchise, existing as terrible, and simultaneously as even worse than you thought. I’m of the mind that the key to fixing a dilapidated house is very rarely to burn it down. You need to figure out which beams to keep and which to discard, what’s structural, and what’s cosmetic, and most importantly if any part of it can be repurposed (aka traded) for something more useful.
I tried to retrace this dismantling as best I could back to a singular moment and while some would probably offer 7-1-07 as the best option, I’ve chosen to give the franchise a partial clean slate after the ownership change. Because of that, and because of the mini-rebuild that saw the team make the playoffs in 2010 and 2011 I think the current issues stem from Pegula and Company mis-evaluating what they were given. Thus my singular moment that sent this franchise into its tailspin is the Leino contract, something that suggested management thought the team was closer to contending than it actually was.
February 23rd to April 9th, 2011
The team ends the season 16-4-4 partially due to some good luck, partially due to other bubble teams faltering, but mostly by playing inexplicably good hockey. They take the second seeded Flyers to the brink of elimination largely due to one of the biggest goaltending disparities in Stanley Cup Playoff history.
The Consequences: The losses of Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman go understated. Thomas Vanek’s and Drew Stafford’s successes coupled with the Derek Roy injury also understate the team’s needs at center.
What Should Have Happened: Management should have realized how fragile the Sabres’ success was. Thomas Vanek gets hurt, Drew Stafford doesn’t shoot as well, or Jhonas Enroth doesn’t come up big, and the team winds up in 10th place. They were closer to being the worst in the league than they were to being the best in the league and management needed to develop a plan for being great, not for simply being marginally better.
The 2011 Offseason
- June 3rd, 2011 – The Sabres sign Drew Stafford for four years at $4M per year.
- June 24th-25th, 2011 – The Sabres draft Joel Armia (LW) with their first round pick and Daniel Catenacci (C) with their third round pick. Outside the top 10, the only centers to have NHL impacts are Reid Boucher, Jean-Gabriel Pageau (mostly negligible), and Andrew Shaw (as a solid third liner).
- June 25th, 2011 – Robyn Regehr is traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Chris Butler and Paul Byron, a 2012 2nd (Jake McCabe), and money in the form of Ales Kotalik.
- June 29th, 2011 – Steve Montador’s rights are traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for a 7th round pick (Judd Peterson)
- July 1st, 2011 – Ville Leino signs with the Buffalo Sabres.
- July 1st, 2011 – Christian Ehrhoff signs with the Buffalo Sabres.
- July 2nd, 2011 – Tim Connolly signs with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
- Summer 2011 – Mike Grier has no takers for an NHL contract.
- September 15th, 2011 – Tyler Myers is signed for 7 years at $5.5M per year
The Consequences: There were three big mistakes here, one based on a mis-evaluation of the team, one based on a mis-evaluation of a player, and one that was a little of both. Ville Leino was signed based on Darcy Regier believing the team to be closer than it was, and Drew Stafford and Tyler Myers got paid because Regier decided to pin their dollar amounts to limited success and hope (and again, also because Regier thought the team to be closer than it was and was more okay with over-payments than he should have been).
What Should Have Happened: There were two halfway decent directions to take at this point.
1). Re-sign Connolly to play with Roy and Hecht in the (fluid) top three center roles, re-sign Grier, and commit to three top lines that are offensively underwhelming, but solid in terms of possession and (with the Ehrhoff and Regehr acquisitions), very defensively solid.
2). Make Ehrhoff your only big acquisition to shore up the top three defensive spots (Ehrhoff, Myers, and Sekera), and begin moving assets so that you can pursue a top tier center through the draft while retaining a core of solid players. The Myers contract was a gamble (that $5.5M would be a bargain at some point) that didn’t pay off. It’s still regrettable, but it’s somewhat understandable.
Option 1 probably keeps you good, but not great for a few years. It does however make you a better possession team than you were when advanced stats exploded onto the scene and makes a piece like Leino much more viable at that point in time. Option 2 has you (hopefully) trending upward once more when it’s time to negotiate with Vanek and Pominville. Both options, even with Connolly’s high 4.75M cap hit avoid the albatross in term and amount that the Leino contract has become. Both of these (since they’re based on correctly evaluating the talent) probably keep the Stafford contract from happening, or at least keep it being as bad as it was. (You can say they should have moved Stafford at the deadline, but he only had 15 goals at that point.)
The 2011-2012 Season
- Tyler Ennis misses 34 games
- Christian Ehrhoff misses 16 games
- Jochen Hecht misses 60 games
- Tyler Myers misses 27 games
- Andrej Sekera misses 13 games
- Buffalo loses 328 man-games overall (8th in NHL)
- Milan Lucic runs over Ryan Miller
- Marcus Foligno puts up 13 points in 14 games
- The Sabres acquire Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani
- Paul Gaustad is dealt to Nashville for a 2012 1st (eventually became Zemgus Girgensons).
The Consequences: Sabres brass quite correctly points out that injuries were the main reason they failed to make the playoffs. Sabres brass apparently fails to understand that it wasn’t injuries that made them a mediocre team. Management is left believing Foligno – Ennis – Stafford is a viable second line and Cody Hodgson is Thomas Vanek’s and Jason Pominville’s center of the future. In spite of all those, two positive moves are made: an effort is finally made to actually address the center issue and the team loses one bad contract in Paul Gaustad’s $2.3M cap hit and gets a first round pick out of it. Unfortunately at this point bad management and roster over-valuation has saddled the team with Stafford’s, Leino’s, and Myers’s combined $14M. Leino is unmovable and Regier is too afraid of “losing” a trade that sends Stafford or Myers packing should they find a career resurgence elsewhere.
The Miller incident and the subsequent attention it got made it seem like the Sabres’ issues were not being very tough instead of not being very good. Management over-reacts.
What Should Have Happened: Literally any other reaction to the Lucic incident would have been preferable, whether it was Paul Gaustad jumping Lucic the same way he did Ovechkin, Ryan Miller connecting on his shin-busting slash, or Lindy Ruff telling his goons to plaster Bergeron, Kelly, Krejci, and Thomas the next chance they got. But since this is a criticism of management, Darcy Regier should have been mentally tough enough to not respond to the national media blowing the incident way out of proportion.
Summer, 2012 – The Sabres sign John Scott and re-sign Cody McCormick
The Consequences: “Tough to play against” becomes a thing and the Sabres begin their under-valuation of skill and over-valuation of toughness.
What Should Have Happened: A good hockey player should have been signed. Cody McCormick shouldn’t have been given north of $1M.
July 2, 2012 – Derek Roy is traded for Steve Ott
The Consequences: A bad team that can’t score with center issues is turned into a worse team that can’t score with bigger center issues. Steve Ott is part of the “tough to play against movement” which isn’t to be confused with “tough to beat.” One of the Sabres’ better contracts leaves the team and while Ott’s contract isn’t terrible either, the subsequent lack of center depth forces him into a role he simply isn’t good enough to play.
What Should Have Happened: This move probably should have happened, it just shouldn’t have been thought of as a solution to anything. The team needed to look at rebuilding in the offseason, or at least at laying a foundation. Acquiring Ott and Scott and re-signing McCormick to hope for the best was a mistake. The team needed to start moving some albatross contracts as best they could and shaping the future of the team.
March 30th, 2013 – Jordan Leopold is traded to the St. Louis Blues for a 2013 2nd (Justin Bailey) and 5th (Anthony Florentino)
The Consequences: The Sabres shed some contract and acquire draft picks and the defense maybe sinks a little.
What Should Have Happened: Exactly this, just months sooner.
April 1, 2013 – Robyn Regehr is traded to the Los Angeles Kings for two second round picks.
The Consequences: The Sabres shed some contract and a major possession sink and acquire draft picks.
What Should Have Happened: Exactly this.
April 3rd, 2013 – Jason Pominville is traded to the Minnesota Wild for Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, a 2013 1st (Nikita Zadorov) and a 2014 2nd.
The Consequences: The Sabres best all around player and a solid possession player is sent packing. The return is good but on a team with few good contracts and fewer solid two-way players the loss was too much.
What Should Have Happened: The Sabres should have tried to deal Vanek instead of Pominville. (They may very well have and the Wild were smart enough not to bite.) Vanek didn’t want to be around for a rebuild, was a better offensive threat, but worse in most other aspects, and had a more prohibitive contract. I can’t speak to Pominville’s willingness to stick around, but it seems likely it would have been higher than Vaneks. Good players with good contracts were and are at a premium in Buffalo.
Summer 2013 – Mike Weber is re-signed for 3 years at $1.67M per year.
The Consequences: Bad possession becomes worse possession.
What Should Have Happened: His rights traded for a low pick, or a contract more in line with a #7 defenseman.
April 26th, 2013 – Jochen Hecht retires
The Consequences: A team lacking in solid possession players who are defensively responsible and on decent contracts loses one more.
July 3, 2013 – Nathan Gerbe is placed on waivers, signs with Carolina
The Consequences: The Sabres look cheap and stupid and committed to fixing minor issues before fixing crippling problems. Gerbe was never the answer to anything, but he was never so bad (Weber, Leino), that his mere presence was prohibitive.
June 30th, 2013 – The Sabres trade Andrej Sekera for Jamie McBain and the 35th overall pick (J.T. Compher)
The Consequences: The Sabres defense gets abundantly worse, and they lose yet another solid two way, possession player on a good contract.
What Should Have Happened: We have no idea how Compher is going to turn out so it’s tough to say, and the loss is mitigated by the glut of young high-celing defensive prospects. However, I would rather be looking at Ehrhoff, Sekera, Pysyk, Myers, Zadorov, Ristolainen, and McNabb heading into the future than that group minus Sekera and plus Compher.
October 27th, 2013 – The Sabres trade Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson, a conditional 2014 1st, and a 2015 2nd.
The Consequences: The Sabres get value out of a player who didn’t want to be around. They also diminish the team’s reputation as a destination for potential free agents. Win some, lose some.
What Should Have Happened: The Sabres should have dealt Vanek much earlier.
February 28th, 2014 – The Sabres trade Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis for Chris Stewart, Jaroslav Halak, and two draft picks with many conditions.
The Consequences: Buffalo is a personnel disaster with no apparent vision other than to acquire draft picks. The teams leaders are, by default, now Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford. There is no top line talent and I’m seriously concerned for Christian Ehrhoff’s mental well being. It’s hard to accurately gauge the impact of this one though with rumors of more deals in the works.
What Should Have Happened: This, though things shouldn’t have gotten to this point.
Where are we now? If you base it solely on production:
Moulson – Hodgson – Stewart
Foligno – Ennis – Stafford
Leino – Girgensons – D’Agostini
Ellis- McCormick – Varone
Ehrhoff – Myers
McBain – Tallinder
Weber – Sulzer
If you want to pare that down to players that would have a roster spot on a good (i.e. 3rd-6th place) team it would look something like this:
______ – ______ – ______
Moulson – ______ – Stewart
Foligno – Hodgson – Girgensons
______ – ______ – D’Agostini
Ehrhoff – Myers
______ – ______
______ – ______
The hope is that Girgensons can be a solid #2 center, and that Larsson will take his place on that third line while Pysyk continues play as a solid 2nd pairing defenseman and Zadorov and Ristolainen end up being top four (and maybe top pair) defensemen. Even then, the team is still left missing an entire top line, something that Pominville’s presence would mitigate. Sekera’s presence would at the very least make the defense better immediately, and possibly be an integral part of a stellar future, even with a bloated Myers contract.
I don’t know what Tim Murray’s plan is, but at least it doesn’t seem to involve albatross contracts given to 33 year old goaltenders and 31 year old third line wingers who seem to be on the precipice of a significant decline in effectiveness. (I was willing to gamble on Miller being effective for 5+ years and wanted to avoid having Stafford and Ennis as ‘by default’ mentors at any cost but I can respect the fairly safe bet that Miller’s and Ott’s values are higher right now than they’re ever going to be again.) It presumably also doesn’t involve dealing any good players for the purpose of acquiring picks as Darcy’s Pominville and Sekera deals suggests.
I don’t think the team had to bottom out with historically awful (and that retaining Pominville and Sekera in particular would’ve improved both the short and long term outlook), but we have done just that. Let’s hope, amid all the frustrations and the bungles and the bad contracts, that it was the right choice.