It’s T-minus three weeks and counting to the NHL trade deadline, set back to April 3 this year because of the lockout, and the Buffalo Sabres have 21 games left in the NHL’s shortened season. There were 20 games left when the deadline hit last season, with General Manager Darcy Regier getting a first-round draft pick from Nashville for Paul Gaustad and acquiring Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer from Vancouver for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani.
The Sabres were fighting to get into the playoffs at that point and eventually sneaked into eighth place before a 1-3-1 finish cost them a shot in the postseason. Are they in a playoff push this year? Highly debatable.
Buffalo is 13th in the East and five points behind the teams tied for eighth, the New York Rangers and Winnipeg. They meet tonight in Manitoba, so one of them will go seven points ahead of the Sabres while using up a game in hand.
Prevailing wisdom around the league already has the Sabres among the chief sellers at the deadline, along with clubs like Calgary and Florida. Pending free agents like Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and Jochen Hecht might get some interest and so will struggling winger Drew Stafford.
But what will really bear watching is what the Sabres do with captain Jason Pominville, winger Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller. The team’s trio of long-standing stars will be entering the final years of their contracts next season.
“These are things that obviously are tough,” Pominville said prior to Tuesday’s 3-1 win over the New York Rangers. “Everyone has different situations. Guys have families. Some guys don’t. I think the biggest thing is doing what we can on the ice to help the team and do the things you can control.
“The other things that go around with it, I think we’re all professional enough to understand them. ... Management has to control what they control. We gotta do what we can do. Right now we haven’t done enough.”
Regier was unavailable for comment Wednesday but during his weekly appearance on WGR Radio on Tuesday night, Regier directly addressed the possibility of moving Miller, Vanek or Pominville for the first time. His point was their contracts are very palatable when you consider that a star player like Anaheim center Ryan Getzlaf just signed for eight years and $66 million last Friday.
“The reality of those three is if you were to put them on the market, they’re very desirable players,” Regier said. “Given Getzlaf’s contract in Anaheim, which is really the first big one in the new CBA, their contracts are going to be very reasonable. But right now they’re here, we expect to keep them here and build with them. Having said that, where we are, we have to be open to a lot of different things.”
It’s known the Sabres have had scouts at recent games in Los Angeles, Colorado and St. Louis, with the first two clubs getting watched on multiple occasions. Judging the significance of the scout roll call on game night in Buffalo, meanwhile, is difficult. That’s because so many teams use First Niagara Center as a quick vantage point because of scouts who live in nearby Southern Ontario.
Still, the Kings have been in town for the last two Buffalo home games and they are not one of the teams regularly listed here. The Kings got Jeff Carter from Columbus at last year’s deadline, reuniting him with former Philadelphia teammate Mike Richards, and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Defensemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell have been out all season with injuries, and the Kings are familiar with Regehr and Leopold from their days with Calgary’s 2004 Cup finalists. The Kings would also be intrigued by the addition of Vanek or Pominville as well for their run at another Cup.
Vanek can be moved at will while Miller and Pominville have no-trade clauses that allow them to give Regier a list of eight teams to which they will not accept a deal. Regehr has a full no-trade clause he would need to waive to be moved.
While Miller has dealt with some trade rumors in the last two years, particularly involving Anaheim late in 2011, this is new territory for Pominville and Vanek.
“I’ve never heard my name out there so I can’t really answer that,” Pominville said, when asked how much of a distraction talks might be in the next month. “They would have to come up to me [for the eight-team list] and that hasn’t been the case.”
Miller will turn 33 this summer while Pominville hits 31 in November. Vanek’s 30th birthday is in January. There’s no indication the Sabres have discussed extensions with any of them.
When Miller spoke to The News on Tuesday, he wondered aloud if the team’s longtime stars are no longer thought of as the franchise’s core going forward. Vanek admitted pondering the finite nature of a hockey player’s career, likening it to being a young player during the team’s 2006 run to the Eastern Conference final and seeing veterans like Mike Grier and Chris Drury leading the team.
“They were about the age that I am now, and they’re done now,” Vanek said. “It hits you, how quick it goes. Here are two of my guys who mentored me, and they’re done playing hockey. You definitely want to be in a spot where you give yourself a chance of winning.”
Vanek acknowledged there’s likely no quick fix for the Sabres, meaning contention might have to wait until deeper into their careers if they stay here.
“We have good pieces here,” Vanek said. “Obviously, there are some pieces that need to be moved or added or however else you want to get it. The big piece for me, the one that makes me feel most comfortable, is that Ryan is here. He’s getting up there [in age], too, but this year he’s at the top of his game. That’s what is so unfortunate. When you have a goalie like him, you shouldn’t be in this position.”
The Sabres were off Wednesday and return to the practice ice this morning downtown. The next game isn’t until Ottawa comes to town Saturday afternoon at 3.