Are We There Yet?

I have spent much of the season trying to remain positive and upbeat in my assessment of the Buffalo Sabres. In a world where most bloggers and writers were ripping into a team, I was spouting optimism.

Now at a time when things are going well for this team and people are starting to believe again I’m going to deliver this healthy dose of pessimism.

The Sabres have won four of five and have earned nine of the 10 possible points. That is huge in terms of standings and it has also been much better hockey. The Sabres are far from fixed. Every team goes on runs and Buffalo looks good now, but the Minnesota Wild looked like a Stanley Cup contender to start the year too.

Buffalo has problems in three major areas. Their present, the prospect of movement and the future. It is my goal to break these things down. If Buffalo cannot fix at least two of these problems it could be a bleak future in Upstate New York.

We’ll start in chronological order with the present. The current Buffalo roster is playing well now, but is this team good enough? Simple answer: no. There are many problems with this team that do not make it a viable contender in the future.

The forwards lack consistency, depth and grit. The team has a overflow of has-beens, streaky scorers and marginal depth players. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek have produced in every season they’ve played. There has been ebb and flow,but the production has been there.

There is no other Sabre forward you can say that about. Drew Stafford is as streaky as they come. Sometimes he’s magical with the puck, most of the time he he loafs around the ice looking frustrated. Paul Gaustad is out of his element trying to carry a 3rd line that consists of spare parts. Brad Boyes can’t figure out why his production has fallen off the table. Derek Roy is still Roy, he’s serviceable and frustrating and mind-bogglingly immature.

Those players should be shipped out at the end of this season either via trade or free agency. Then there are the players who may not be in the right situation to succeed. Besides Gaustad, Pat Kaleta is another player who is being asked to play above his level.

He’s either a 3rd liner on a gritty, shutdown line or a fourth liner on a muscle line. Buffalo has neither of those lines. Nathan Gerbe bounces from line to line without time to adjust. He doesn’t get a lot of power play time, yet remains a top producer at even strength no matter what line he plays on.

Tyler Ennis is a player who was lost to begin the season. A recent move to center has sparked his play, center was a position of need for Buffalo, why wasn’t this tried sooner? Luke Adam should be in Rochester, there are other players who could use those call up minutes and he clearly isn’t ready. Joining Adam with the Americans should be Matt Ellis. And who knows if Jochen Hecht will ever be healthy again.

Then there is Ville Leino. He was signed as a center. He’s not a center. Now he joins the exorbitant number of center/wingers that can’t seem to figure out “the system”. The same system that has been mentioned several times as a puck possession defensive system similar to Detroit.

You know, that team that traded Leino because he couldn’t break through and score in the system, that team. Instead Leino went to Philadelphia and thrived, the team that may least resemble to Sabres in the entire NHL (or Boston).

The Sabres have Pominville, Vanek, Ennis, Gerbe and Leino heading into next season. Those are the players that seem likely to remain on the squad. Three left wingers a center and a right winger. All could be seen as top-6 players. Gerbe and Leino could probably play on a third line depending on how it is built.

This group, shockingly, is one that a general manager could work with. The unit is small though, and has absolutely zero toughness. The rest of a team built on these five players would need to have size in the two top-6 spots. The 5 spots in the bottom-6 would need some serious depth and grit.

When I say depth I don’t mean lot’s of players that can fill roster spots (see Cody McCormick, Matt Ellis) but I mean players that make your team scary on paper. A player that really makes you think that this team has the role players in all the right spots. Think about Tampa Bay last season. If you filled out a third line that looked like Manny Malholtra, Gerbe and David Clarkson. To me, that line can do almost anything, from fight, to defend to score.

If you can get a team of forwards built around these 5 guys then you have something to work with offensively and defensively. The next step would be to evaluate the defense.

Of anything Darcy Regier has put together, I would say that I’m happiest with the defensive unit. Tyler Myers will be a building block for may years. Christian Ehrhoff, Andrej Sekera and Jordan Leopold all serve similar roles while Robyn Regher has been a stalwart on defense.

Leopold is expendable. He is a good player and if there are no better options he should be retained. If there is a good, shutdown defenseman available the Sabres shouldn’t feel to bad about jettisoning number 3.

I still have to wonder about the prospect of keeping Mike Weber in the lineup. Marc-Andre Gragnani was understandably benched for poor play, he needs another year or so of protected minutes. Weber has been a glaring liability in the roster and what’s worse is that Brayden McNabb is poised to take his spot.

McNabb was sent back to Rochester to play more minutes when his pairing with Myers was one of the best young pairings I’ve seen in some time. That could push Leopold and Sekera to the 3rd pairing where they belong. Yet for some reason Weber continues to turn the puck over and skate slowly. Weber has the potential yet to develop, but his time is running out.

If you keep Myers, Sekera, Ehrhoff, Regehr and McNabb in the top six you only need to add one more player. A solid shutdown player to pair with Regehr or Ehrhoff would really make this a formidable unit. Clearly this unit doesn’t need the makeover the forwards need.

I won’t dwell on goaltenders. Miller has not been good enough, but what are the other options? I’d rather role the dice on a player who used to be the best in the world, than some prospect starter. We have Enroth, MacIntyre and Leggio in the wings if someone slips down the depth chart.

So for a really powerful team for next season the Sabres would need two top-6 forwards, 5 bottom-6 forwards and a defenseman. Tough sledding yes, but not inconceivable in one summer. So the questions become two fold. Have I given up on the season and how do we come by these players?

To assess the first question, yes and no. I do not think they are mathematically incapable of making the playoffs. It would be a fun ride if they made it and would certainly make for an exciting season. Let’s face it though, 5-7 points out at this point with a team that hasn’t won 2 straight without a shoot out since November doesn’t seem likely.

Moreover the team that has been much more fun to watch and that has been playing some of its best hockey, still hasn’t been that good. Three of the last four games have gone to a shoot out. They looked the best against New York, but played just well enough to win against New Jersey, Montreal and the Islanders. With play like that their chances of getting to the playoffs, much less going on a deep run seems insurmountable.

I don’t like using the word “tank”, but at this point, why not? Nail Yakupov is looking more and more like a real option to play in the NHL next year and become a franchise player. Clear out the players with multi year deals like Roy, Stafford and Leopold and  let some prospects grow in the NHL. Start a 1-2 year rebuild. It could take as short as one offseason.

The next major question is the issue of how the changes will  be made, which I have already touched on. The challenges facing Darcy Regier at the trading deadline are many. Starting with how he values his team and his players. This has always been one of Regier’s shortcomings. Regier doesn’t like to be a seller, he wants his teams to succeed now and will not give up on a season.

So unless Buffalo hits another big rough patch before the deadline it’s unlikely that Roy, Stafford or Leopold will be shipped out of town. It has been a tradition in Sabreland for the last several years to trade a 2nd Round draft pick for a forward. Dainus Zubrus, Steve Bernier, Dominic Moore, Raffi Torres and Brad Boyes. How well have those worked out? (Bernier was part of the Campbell deal)

Instead of shelling out an upper level pick for a mid level player, why not shed some salary. Look at what you can do in Florida and Winnipeg with a Moneybal-esqe approach. Buffalo has better pieces in place for this type of rebuild than either of those teams.

It will be important for Regier to face the truth. He is currently quoted as wanting to trade a top-6 forward for a top-6 forward. But who is going to bite on that deal? Roy, Stafford and Boyes are not going to get some magic bullet player to fix this roster. Better to get that player in the offseason and shell out your marginal for jacked up prices to have much more capital to spend.

Regier cannot expect much more than what he has paid the last several years in return for his players. Roy, Leopold and Stafford may net a 2nd round pick and perhaps a prospect. Boyes a 4th rounder or marginal prospect. That’s the nature of it.

If Regier could pry several pick and prospects away from contenders he could use those to trade up in the draft or bring in needed players around that same time. The cap space alone would be the major gain from any of these deals. The question is can Regier sell with a supportive owner as well as buy?

So what does the future hold? We’ll have to see. Buffalo has many nice prospects. Forwards Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno, Corey Tropp, Kevin Sundher, Jacob Legace, Mark Voakes and Phil Varone all look to be viable NHL layers in the next several seasons.

On defense Brayden McNabb, Joe Finley, TJ Brennan, Mark Pysyk and Jerome Gautier-Leduc are all projecting to be NHLers in the near future. In goal David Leggio, Drew MacIntyre, Nathan Lieuwen and Connor Knapp could all be goaltender in the NHL at some point. Some other marginal/depth prospects include Drew Schiestel, Dennis Persson, Riley Boychuk, Travis Turnbull, Derek Whitmore and Alex Biega.

The cupboard is stocked and the time for these players to take turns with the big club is now. If the team cannot win this season trade for cap space and develop prospects. It’s a time honored tradition in sports.

There likely will be enough players to fill the holes in this team and Buffalo should have enough cap space to make the moves they need to. If the keep Roy and Stafford and finish 17th in the overall standings while giving up a 2nd round pick for a ineffective rental.

The Sabres could still be good this year, but I doubt it. Give me some hope for the future. Give me a chance to watch some new talent. Forget about April and May and worry about making late June and early July the exciting parts of this season. That way maybe next year I’ll be thinking about early June and the hardware that goes with it.

Adam Qutaishat
Adam Qutaishat
Adam is a 23-year-old student attending the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point majoring in Music Education. Adam lives in Stevens Point, WI and works for many local and national sports media outlets in many different mediums.
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