Ryan Miller’s nose wasn’t clear Tuesday, but the nasty sinus infection that kept him from starting against the Rangers didn’t prevent oxygen from reaching his brain. His head remained clear. For years, the franchise goaltender has been looking for an opportunity to contend for a Stanley Cup.
The mere mention of the Cup seems laughable now. The Sabres are flailing around the bottom of the NHL standings with a team likely to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in six years. But after Miller signed his contract three years ago, they had a 100-point season and won the Northeast Division.
Maybe they could win the Cup.
“I’ve been trying to think that for a while,” Miller said. “We haven’t really found our identity a few times. We had our identity in 2010. We played defense. We had a core of good guys on D. Whether we could keep those guys or not, or whether it worked out, it went in another direction for us again.”
This was not the direction Miller envisioned. The Sabres have managed to spend more money and grow progressively worse since Terry Pegula arrived with grandiose expectations and a bottomless checkbook. And that means they have been grossly mismanaged for two seasons if not the majority of 16.
General Mismanager Darcy Regier had the eighth-highest payroll and the 29th-best team in the NHL going into Tuesday’s game. The notion that he was shackled by the previous regime is a myth. Other teams are run better. The Blackhawks have fewer players from their 2010 Cup-winning team than Buffalo does from their 2010 team that was knocked out in the first round. Ottawa and Montreal turned around their teams. So has Carolina. And Anaheim. And Minnesota.
Pegula should have fired Regier and saved himself the hassle, if not a pile of money.
Look at the results. The Sabres skated into their game against the Rangers in 14th place in the Eastern Conference. The projected point total for eighth place was 54 points, which meant the Sabres needed a 15-4-3 finish, starting with the game Tuesday, just to have a chance at the postseason.
Coach Lindy Ruff has been fired. Interim Ron Rolston, who sounds like a Regier clone, must be wishing he stayed in Rochester. Their defense has been terrible, their effort worse, their morale low. Not even a cagey veteran like Jochen Hecht can pull them from this hole.
And it could get worse, if that’s possible, before it gets better.
The word coming from Camp Pegula offered this frightening possibility: Regier surviving the season. Ken Sawyer, one of Pegula’s top advisors, has told people he believes Regier is a “hockey genius.” It’s enough to question Sawyer’s credibility, especially after Regier signed a contract extension for missing the playoffs.
At some point, usually when their bank accounts are full but dreams are unfulfilled, players start searching for a title anywhere they can find one. Miller, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville each have one full season on their contracts before they’re eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Miller will turn 33 this summer. Pominville turns 31 in November while Vanek turns 30 next January. They’re not the innocent, energetic kids who emerged during the 2005-06 season and climbed aboard a playoff ride to remember. All three have been superb in a miserable season. All three could help a playoff team.
It would be painful, but the Sabres should consider trading them in a lost season and maximize their return. It beats losing them for nothing or getting less back next season. For now, they remain valuable assets.
The clock is ticking.
It doesn’t bode well for Regier, who can continue rationalizing he has plenty of time to make decisions. He has been slow with the trigger finger and misfired many times. His tardiness or outright refusal to address obvious situations has been a persistent problem throughout his tenure. This issue isn’t going away.
“I want the situation to be that we’re in a position to win a Cup sooner than later,” Miller said. “That’s ideal.”
Forget about whether the Sabres should keep them. Why would they stay? All three said the right things Tuesday about wanting to win here, but there was a sense none of their hearts would be broken if they were traded. The Sabres could be several years away from turning around the franchise, assuming they make the right decisions.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Vanek said. “Stay here or move on? At the end of the day, it’s the team’s decision. I haven’t heard from them. But, yeah, you think about different situations.”
Pegula desperately needs sound advice before the NHL trade deadline, which is three weeks from today. The Sabres’ problem with Miller, Vanek and Pominville is that they’re the players most worth keeping and most worth trading. Keeping any or all of them comes with inherent risks, but so does moving them.
Their trade value greatly depreciates next season because they’re in the final year of their contracts. Buffalo also could lose them for nothing if they don’t sign extensions. Where is this going? It’s less clear than Miller’s nose.
“Do a couple of pieces need to come in? Or do they need to develop? How long is it going to take?” Miller said. “They are things you have to evaluate as you see decisions management makes to give you a timetable. Right now, yeah, it seems longer. But you have the trade deadline, the draft.
“Do we become a younger team or do we become a team that’s going to build and try to get this core group of guys a chance to move forward? Or are we not the core anymore? Who knows? They’re not decisions we make. We react off management and circumstance.”