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Offeason 2010: Back to the Future?

A little over a month ago, I wrote a column detailing what the Sabres’ plans for this offseason should be (see: Sabres’ Potential Blueprint, May 13th, 2010.) Some of my suggestions are still viable, others not (ex: Jason Arnott being dealt to New Jersey, Nathan Horton to Boston.)

After writing the previous article, I had a chance to review the 2009-10 season for the Buffalo Sabres. For some odd reason, it seemed to me as if this scenario had happened before. And then it hit me: this predicament that Buffalo finds themselves in happened to them exactly ten years ago.

In 2000, the Sabres had just been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Flyers. The year before that, 1999, Buffalo had made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 24 years. And the year before that, 1998, they had gone to the Eastern Conference Finals. To sum it up, over those three years, each time Buffalo went into the playoffs in search of a Stanley Cup ring.

After that loss to the Flyers, Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier looked over his roster and noticed three things: 1. The team was getting older. Buffalo had eight players on their roster who were at least 30 years old by the time the season got underway. 2. The Sabres had many players whose contracts would be expiring after the 2000-01 season, and 3. Most of the players on the roster were not drafted by the organization during the Regier/Lindy Ruff era. They were either acquired by Regier and Ruff via trade or free agency, or were brought in during the John Muckler/Ted Nolan era.

So what Regier and Ruff decide to do? They looked over the roster and decided that now was the time to make one last run at the Stanley Cup with this group of players. They knew that changes were going to come after the upcoming season, and that the team needed to get younger.

During the summer of 2000, they went after a few free agents on the market and managed to keep a few of their own players for one more year.  Older players on the roster such as Dominik Hasek, Doug Gilmour and Vladimir Tsyplakov decided to stick around for one more crack at a championship. And although the only major free agent signee was 37-year-old Dave Andreychuk, nevertheless it was a smart one.

Andreychuk is without question a future Hall-of-Famer. He is the NHL’s all-time leader in powerplay goals, and scored 640 goals in his 23-year career. His was a big name being brought back to the Sabres after being traded from Buffalo to Toronto during the 1992-93 season. The signing was, in a word, brilliant.

Bringing back Andreychuk wasn’t the Sabres only major acquisition during that season. Buffalo also brought back former Sabre Donald Audette and acquired veteran Steve Heinze at the trade deadline to help boost Buffalo’s powerplay. These shrewd moves allowed Buffalo to end the 2000-01 season with 46 wins (98 points) and ended the season one win shy of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years. (Only the Pittsburgh Penguins– and captain Michael Peca’s holdout- stood in the way of those dreams, but that’s a story for another day.)

Now, the Sabres find themselves in an identical situation. A few years removed from having back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, and after winning the Northeast Division last season the team looks ready to make a Stanley Cup run next season. Regier and Ruff face tremendous pressure to win now, or one (or both) of their jobs could be terminated.

Over the years, most fans have come to expect that Regier will most likely not land the big fish in free agency. Throwing money at top-notch free agents isn’t Regier’s style. More often than not, he will sit patiently until the right player for Buffalo comes along at the right price. According to this logic, this should scratch players such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Teemu Selanne and Sergei Gonchar off of Regier’s wish list.

However, history suggests that a big name, although perhaps an older one, isn’t out of the question.

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