After a tumultuous season that saw captain Jason Pominville shipped off to the Minnesota Wild and their defense corps gutted, the Buffalo Sabres are in for a good, old-fashioned rebuild. General Manager Darcy Regier remains with the team for an unprecedented 17th season, and is accompanied by now full-time head coach Ron Rolston. While much needs to be done to restore the team to contending form, I will focus on the Sabres' goals in the beginning stages of the process.
Here, I'll take a look at:
- Impending free agents (restricted and unrestricted)
- Possible moves in unrestricted free agency
- Possible trades
- NHL Draft prospects
Having traded defensemen Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold at the deadline to Los Angeles and St. Louis, respectively, the Sabres don't have that much in the way of unrestricted free agents. The team recently re-signed enforcer John Scott for another year, and forward Jochen Hecht finally called it quits. The team does have decisions to make on rearguards Alexander Sulzer and Adam Pardy, but, with all due respect, these guys don't factor too significantly into the team's future plans.
That being said, the Sabres have some restricted free agents worth watching. Center Cody Hodgson will be due a bridge contract after a successful campaign in terms of offensive production. In addition, goaltender Jhonas Enroth, defenseman Mike Weber and forward Brian Flynn will each require pay raises of varying degrees. Enroth is perhaps the most interesting situation to watch, as he may be featured in a much more prominent role going forward.
In terms of unrestricted free agency, I wouldn't expect the Sabres to be too active. While they will have money to spend, I expect Regier to keep his wallet in his pocket unless he decides to use one of the two amnesty buyouts allowed by the new CBA (sorry, Ville Leino). If they do choose to spend money in free agency, though, I think they would be interested in the services of Detroit's Valtteri Filppula if he were to test the waters.
Perhaps the biggest issue for most Sabres fans, though, is the fates of Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller. Both players have one year remaining on their contracts, and one has to wonder whether they are going to be around to see the rebuilding process to its completion. Count me among those who believe that Miller will be traded, most likely at the draft. Temper your expectations on possible returns, though, as the trade market for starting goalies is very weak these days.
On the other hand, I expect to see Thomas Vanek in blue and gold for at least the beginning of the season. He remains the most productive forward on a team that is, at the moment, very young and lacking in talent. While the market for Miller is small, I would speculate that 29 teams would be interested in Vanek's services. Darcy Regier won't be trading him for anything short of a big overpayment.
Finally, we have the NHL Draft. The Sabres have two first-round picks and two second-round picks to play with. With this kind of ammunition, they have the ability to move up for a player of choice or to sit back and select the best player available. Either way, the team has to be excited with their flexibility going into a strong draft.
While this subject bears more analysis than I'll be doing here, look for Regier to try to trade up into the top four picks in order to select one of the elite prospects that are available. If that were to happen, center Sasha Barkov, winger Jonathan Drouin and winger Valeri Nichushkin would be potential targets. If they stay put at the eighth pick, they will be able to choose from the likes of Swedish forward Elias Lindholm, center Sean Monahan or defenseman Darnell Nurse, the nephew of Donavan McNabb.
After an immense amount of promise at the beginning of the Terry Pegula era in Buffalo, management has realized that the team won't be able to win a cup anytime soon. Despite the disappointment, Sabres fans should take solace in the fact that they are, first of all, cognizant of that fact, and secondly, that they have the wherewithal to turn things around with relative swiftness. Thanks for reading.