By Ch2 Sports Director Ed Kilgore
He meant well of course, and he was deadly serious when he said the Sabres sole reason for existence was to win a Stanley Cup or Cups, but owner Terry Pegula also set the bar a bit higher than circumstances warranted heading into the 2011-2012 season.
My gut tells me Pegula is just as frustrated and disappointed as most Sabres fans are after a late and exciting late season charge fell 3 points short of a playoff spot in a league where more teams make the playoffs than don't. But my gut also tells me Pegula's life experiences and ups and downs make it unlikely he will follow the advice of many by "blowing things up" in the off season. It might be tempting to fire gm Darcy Regier and even coach Lindy Ruff for a "fresh start", but that would be foolish and he knows that.
Foolish, because there simply isn't a better coach out there, and as one NHL executive told me late in the season "if anything, Ruff deserves a ton of credit for keeping the team focused for a late season run when just about everything that could go wrong went wrong". As for gm's, Regier has had more hits than misses, and it is now quite obvious he's been given unfair blame for some previous ownership shortcomings. There simply are no Stanley Cup winners who lack GREAT ownership, no matter WHO the gm or coach might be, and the Sabres now have that ownership in Pegula.
This doesn't mean there won't be changes, and there will be changes in this off season that may even involve a long time Sabre favorite or two.
Ryan Miller will not be one of those changes, nor should he be. Forget all the rumors about how his mid season struggles were due to the fact his movie star wife lived out west, which is where his heart really was, etc. Moving past a concussion or two had everything to do with his slump, and that slump also dragged the team down with him.
Miller is not the only reason the Sabres lost 12 straight on the road - a playoff killer if ever there was one - nor is he the only reason the Sabres were one of THE best teams in the NHL from February on. But he was certainly the key to the late run, and he remains the key to any legitimate hopes of a Cup coming to Buffalo in the next few years. We can argue all day about whether or not Miller is the best, or one of the five best, etc., but we can't argue that acquiring a better goaltender than Miller is a virtual impossibility.
Miller isn't the only untouchable Sabre, although there aren't many I would put in that category.
You might be surprised at my second most untouchable Sabre, but that would be Tyler Ennis. Ok, he's not very big at 5-9, 157 (holding a bag of pucks), but Ennis PLAYS big - and FAST. Along with Miller, his success after Ruff moved him to center was huge in the late season surge, and also made it easy to see Ennis as a rising star in the NHL at 22. Ennis played only 48 games last season, and his speed and creativity were sorely missed. He finished with 15 goals, 19 assists and was a team high plus 11. One NHL scout pointed out to me from the press box one night how opposing defensemen begin backing up the moment Ennis is anywhere near the puck, which is respect not shown to many players of any age. He's smart, and he doesn't mind sticking his nose into the traffic around the net, and whether he's a #1 center or not, he'll be a very large part of the Sabres of 2012-13.
No big surprise here, but another youngster who already has a permanent locker in Buffalo is forward Marcus Foligno. He paid his dues in Rochester but clearly was good enough to play with the big team earlier, but in the end, the Roch experience probably helped him. He has his dad's (Mike) offensive skills and tenacity, but he's bigger and stronger (6-3, 227) and an ideal NHL power forward with a tremendous future. Foligno almost willed the Sabres into the playoffs after a late call up with 6 goals and 7 assists in 14 games while posting a plus 6 rating and several board-rattling hits. He's 20 years old!
How in the world he lasted until the 4th round in 2009 is a mystery, but give the Sabres credit for landing him, because there are MANY teams who'd love to have him now.
It was the Sabres belief in Foligno that gave them the will to ship Zack Kassian to Vancouver to obtain yet another quality young center in Cody Hodgson, who at 22 was in the running for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year. Hodgson was the Canucks' 1st round pick (10th overall) in 2009 and after a slow start in Buffalo he finished strongly. I'm NOT putting Hodgson in the "untouchable" category just yet, but he's close.
As far as Kassian was concerned, the "inside" story I've gotten about him from a veteran NHL scout is that the Sabres and virtually everybody else thought he was a big, physical player with a "mean streak" that could give the Sabres some physical toughness they'd been lacking. As it turns out, that player in juniors was not the real Kassian. He was bigger and stronger at that level and used his size to be noticed, but in reality, Kassian (I'm told) viewed himself as a skill player who simply knew he had to be physical to get noticed. The Sabres figured this out after he all but disappeared in Rochester.
Kassian scored a goal against the Sabres in the first game after the trade, and a lot of folks thought maybe the Sabres had made a big mistake. Well, it turns out that was the ONLY goal Kassian scored in 17 games with the Canucks. Wonder if the Canucks would make that deal now?
The other Sabre untouchables, would be Tyler Myers, and Captain Jason Pominville. Pominville was a model of consistency with 30 goals, and it's pretty obvious in hindsight a concussion had everything to do with a bit of an off year in 2010-11. He's a great leader who brings it night after night, can kill penalties and score big goals. Who'll ever forget him out battling Alex Ovechkin for the puck along the boards before scoring a shorthand goal that helped the Sabres whip the Caps 5-1 in a late and meaningful game in DC? His teammates voted him their MVP, and that speaks volumes.
That's it for the untouchables, so you'll notice I've left Thomas Vanek off the list, and trust me, I like Vanek a lot. But you have to give up something to get something, and even with Vanek's big price tag, he would garner interest as part of a deal. The Sabres also have (give Regier credit on this one) an extra 1st round draft pick from Nashville for Paul Gaustad, which can also be used as "currency" in part of a deal.
I like Vanek, not only for his goal scoring touch, and despite a late season slump that was probably due to injuries, because he plays hard both ways and is willing to take the punishment in front of the net some players shy away from. One more blessing about having an owner with deep pockets, is that Vanek's 7 million a year contract won't be a stumbling block in any possible negotiation if the Sabres identify a player they really want.
I've also left Drew Stafford off the untouchable list, but I'd also be cautious about trading him unless it's to obtain a targeted player, because he had such good chemistry with Ennis and because he's only 26 and does have size and offensive skills as a former 1st round pick. It is no gimmee to find 20 goal scorers of that ilk.
Derek Roy is still a skillful and talented center, but not a #1 center, and he could also be dangled as trade bait, although there were no takers for him during this season we're told.
There are several other Sabres I like, like Christian Ehrhoff and some younger players, but any of them could be expendable if the Sabres can upgrade. I certainly love Angola's own Patrick Kaleta, who is a terrific physical asset when healthy, but his style of play means we never know when he will or won't be in the lineup.
This will be a very interesting off season, because Pegula will be emotionally and financially ready to pursue players who'll improve this team, and Regier and his staff will have the green light to go after them.
Despite the disappointment, the Sabres still finished 7 games over .500 despite a horrific mid season slump, and with an upgrade or two both up front and behind the blue line, they can contend for a division title very soon.
A Cup? Let's see what happens next year before we make any predictions. One prediction I'll make here though, is that another playoff miss means ALL bets are off from gm to coach to players, and don't think they don't know that while they're out playing golf while everybody else is playing.