Lindy Ruff was fired. Jordan Leopold, Robyn Regehr and Jason Pominville were traded. Jochen Hecht retired Friday night. It seems like Ryan Miller will be the next to go.
Thomas Vanek has been watching all the craziness and wondering, like any Buffalo Sabres fan, what will happen next. After a second straight non-playoff season – and the franchise’s fourth in the last six years – the club appears headed into one of the key rebuilding phases in its history.
It’s not clear if Vanek will be a part of it. It’s not clear if the team’s leading scorer even wants to be.
Vanek has one year left on his contract and his chat with reporters on locker cleanout day Saturday at First Niagara Center was brutally frank. It was especially so when he was asked how much he pondered whether Friday’s 2-1 shootout win over the New York Islanders was his last game for the Blue & Gold.
“Let’s be honest. I’m not stupid. I know I have a year left and they can probably deal me for prospects, young guys, whatever else is out there,” Vanek said. “Yeah, I’ve thought about it. If it looks like it’s a long rebuild, then it probably makes sense for both parties to move on.”
If he’s done in Buffalo, as Miller apparently is, Vanek will leave having produced some impressive career numbers here. He’s sixth in franchise annals in goals (250) and 10th in points (488), and fourth in both power-play goals (105) and game-winning goals (41).
Vanek turned 29 in January and has put in eight years with the Sabres since being drafted fifth overall in 2003. That came a little more than two months after he was the named the Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four in Buffalo, when he led the University of Minnesota to its second straight national title.
He said he hasn’t had many talks with General Manager Darcy Regier about the future. The Sabres can’t begin to negotiate a contract extension with him until July 1 but might be inclined to trade him before the NHL Draft June 30 in Newark, N.J. He doesn’t have a clue if they’ll even offer him a new deal.
“It’s part of the business. I’m not going to sit at home and pout about it,” Vanek said. “I’ll reflect on the time I’ve had here, which was up and down. But for myself personally, I enjoyed myself, always tried to make my teammates/linemates better and for the most part I think I accomplished that.
“There’s different types of rebuilds. There’s one where you can trade and get good players back or you do it through the draft. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. It’s tough to tell right now.”
While the Sabres have many young players and appear to be trying to acquire more, there is an undercurrent or urgency from some quarters of the locker room about going into a full starting-over mode.
“Personally I’m hoping that it’s not going to be a long rebuild like we’ve seen in Edmonton for instance,” said defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, who still has eight years and $22 million left on his deal signed in 2011. “Hopefully we can be back in playoff contention pretty quickly.”
Miller, the focal point of Friday’s finale because it was his 500th career game, is in a similar circumstance as Vanek, with a year left on his deal. But the market for trading goaltenders is a lot tougher to figure out.
“I’m trying to just take the attitude where I do have a contract that keeps me here,” Miller said. “But if that contract is shifted somewhere else, I’m going to have to keep a certain level of excitement going for my own career.”
That said, Miller clearly understands the dynamics of his situation.
“Around this stage of a contract, you have to be realistic,” he said. “In the last year of your deal, if you’re not part of the plan, you become an asset that’s tradable. So I’m just trying to stay open to coming back and trying to stay excited about playing hockey games in the NHL if it’s not going to work out.”
“I don’t know what the plan is,” Vanek said. “If they’re turning it over to the younger guys, it’s a turnover. Or are they going to build around us again? It’s all speculation at this point because you guys don’t know and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
What needs to happen is for the Sabres to develop consistency in their play. They never won more than three games in a row this season.
“As a team we need to go in a different direction here and change the culture,” said defenseman Mike Weber. “It speaks to everything, it speaks to how we treat each other in the room and how we need to treat each other in the room.
“Guys need to be held accountable and I think a lot of that has been lost over the last couple of years. ... Guys need to be consistent, myself included. We get lost in these ruts. We get lost in this quicksand and it just sucks us in. We don’t have enough fight to fight out of it.”
As for this season, no matter what plans the Sabres had, the playoffs proved unreachable – again.
Grumbled winger Drew Stafford: “There’s just no excuse for that.”