With their loss last weekend to the New York Rangers, the Buffalo Sabres have missed the NHL playoffs for the second year in a row despite another late-season charge. As a result, they now find themselves likely beyond the promised land of a top-five draft pick as well.
Many questions will swirl around the Sabres this offseason, from whether or not Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek will be wearing blue and gold next season to the highly anticipated—potential—buyout of Ville Leino.
Here's an early look at the potential moves and opening night roster for the Sabres for the 2013-2014 season.
There are a few major storylines relating to the Sabres' top-six forwards this offseason.
The biggest is the potential departure of Thomas Vanek.
Vanek will be entering the final year of his seven-year, $50 million contract that resulted from the Edmonton Oilers' offer sheet in 2007, and there are rumors abound regarding his possible relocation.
Odds are Vanek will be back and will either be trade-deadline fodder or will sign a substantial extension with the Sabres. He has been the Sabres' best player since the departure of Danny Briere and Chris Drury and will remain as such.
Another big story line is the potential buyout of Ville Leino. His six-year, $27 million deal has been widely panned, and despite his strong play, albeit in limited time, this season, Sabres management will likely look to free up another $4.5 million in salary-cap space given the reduced cap ceiling ($64.3 million) next season.
Some other, comparatively minor storylines will include Drew Stafford and Cody Hodgson.
Hodgson is a restricted free agent and is likely to cash in on a multi-year deal that could be for as high as $4 million a year based on some recent deals.
Stafford was likely be shopped heavily at the trade deadline and could be in for much of the same surrounding the draft in June.
The big storyline here will be the youth movement coming through the pipeline.
Mikhail Grigorenko will almost certainly get a real chance to crack the Sabres' third line, not the six-minutes-a-game farce Sabres fans observed this season. After returning to the QMJHL, Grigorenko scored 18 points in 12 games, 11 of which were in the QMJHL playoffs.
Joel Armia will be stateside with the intention of making the Sabres roster for the first time after scoring a career-high 19 goals in the Finnish Elite League this season.
Johan Larsson has shown some offensive flashes in his six games in Rochester, scoring four points in that time. Larsson has garnered a lot of attention since his arrival in exchange for Jason Pominville due to the Wild's apparent hardship in moving him.
Beyond those three, Pat Kaleta, Brian Flynn, Corey Tropp, Nathan Gerbe, Kevin Porter and, assuming he is re-signed, John Scott will also be competing for the last six spots on the team.
Look for Armia and Larsson to start out in the AHL with Rochester but to be suiting up with the Sabres sooner rather than later.
With the trades of Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold at the deadline, and the earlier deal that sent T.J. Brennan to the Florida Panthers, there is suddenly a lot of opportunity on the Sabres blue line.
While Tyler Myers and Andrej Sekera have left much to be desired this season, Christian Ehrhoff and Mike Weber have played great. Weber has come a long way from being a healthy scratch at the start of the season and should be handsomely rewarded this offseason since he will be a restricted free agent. It's not a stretch to say he has been the Sabres' best blueliner this season.
The trade of Brennan also afforded Mark Pysyk an opportunity, and he has looked good. He hasn't been lights out, but he has shown the three-zone potential that got him drafted in the first round in 2010. You should expect him on the opening night roster in October.
One of the more pleasant surprises has been Chad Ruhwedel, a college unrestricted free agent who played with UMass-Lowell and signed with the Sabres about two weeks ago. Ruhwedel has played in every game since his signing and has made a great pairing with Mike Weber. The two, while playing good minutes, were plus-one, amazingly, in the Sabres' 8-4 blowout loss to the Rangers last weekend. Ehrhoff and Sekera, on the other hand, were an ugly minus-five. Ruhwedel has a real chance to make the squad next season out of the gate as well.
As it stands now, the Sabres' top seven defenseman look to be Myers, Ehrhoff, Weber, Pysyk, Sekera, Ruhwedel and Brayden McNabb (who suffered a non-structural knee injury that ended his season).
What will likely be the Sabres' biggest question until the end of June?
Will Ryan Miller remain between the pipes in Buffalo, or will he find a new home?
Right now, all indications seem to point to his departure. He has not been very committal in interviews, and some have even likened his situation to Patrick Roy's in Montreal before his trade to Colorado. Beyond that, Jhonas Enroth has looked great his past few starts and Matt Hackett, the other prospect that came over in the Pominville trade, has top-netminder potential.
For most, the question is not whether or not Miller can or will be traded, but rather, whether or not the Sabres can get an adequate package in return for the veteran.
Simply put, the price will not be cheap. Regardless of whether it's Darcy Regier or a new GM working the phones, the biggest hurdle will likely be the Sabres' insistence on a premier roster player in addition to a high pick and some prospects.
A trade of Miller, especially before the draft, will likely net the Sabres their third first-round pick, and while the overall depth of this draft is not great, the first-round talent is there, so three top picks will go a long way. That's why a top-three forward or a top-two defenseman will be key in any trade: The Sabres' prospect cupboard may be getting too full.
Stay tuned, folks. The Miller saga could unfold very quickly after the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs, especially seeing as how the draft could be a mere two days after the last possible date for a Stanley Cup Game 7 (June 28).
The big question here is the fate of general manager Darcy Regier.
If Regier goes, it's almost assured that interim head coach Ron Rolston will join him. If Regier inexplicably stays, then Rolston has a shot at the full-time job, but nothing is set in stone.
Regier is the story, though, as many were surprised he survived following the firing of long-time coach Lindy Ruff earlier in the season. Between the two positions, there are plenty of potential suitors, but the Sabres will need to make a quick decision and not belabor the point.
One can assume that Regier will be on his way out, especially given the lack of success the past two seasons, but Sabres fans have been shocked before.
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