It’s funny sometimes when you look through the archives and stumble upon items that are relevant years later. I was researching an incident in which Ryan Miller whipped a ball of tape across the dressing room during a mini-tirade early in his career when a day of infamy unexpectedly popped up.
A note from Inside the NHL, circa 2001, outlined Darcy Regier trying to explain how Michael Zigomanis’ contract became stuck in a fax machine. It caused the Sabres to miss a deadline for signing their former second-round pick. The mistake is one of many during Regier’s long, inexplicable tenure.
The same column included a blurb about Atlanta possibly shopping the first pick overall to Buffalo for Michael Peca and a goaltender. Thrashers GM Don Waddell liked Peca, who sat out the season in a contract dispute, and Martin Biron. Buffalo wanted to keep Biron, so Waddell turned his attention to Mika Noronen and Miller as possible options.
Atlanta kept the pick and selected Ilya Kovalchuk. Peca was shipped to the Islanders that summer for Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. Miller made his NHL debut 17 months later, on Nov. 19, 2002, giving up four goals in an overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils.
The Sabres finished last in the division that year, the second of three straight seasons in which they ended up in the basement. It led them to the fifth pick overall in 2003, which they used on Thomas Vanek. Ten years later, with Regier still in charge and the Sabres going nowhere, their biggest dilemma involves Miller and Vanek.
Here we go again.
This is nothing against Miller and Vanek, who grew up together in the organization and evolved into consummate professionals. But they don’t belong in Buffalo. They have no business playing for a team that’s rebuilding, rebooting or whatever word the Sabres want to use to convince a suspicious fan base to buy the nonsense they’re selling.
Miller has been the franchise goaltender since 2005. He’s a Vezina Trophy winner making $6.25 million. Vanek evolved into a star after the Sabres were forced to sign him to a seven-year, $50 million deal following the Drury-Briere debacle. Miller and Vanek are set to become unrestricted free agents in July, a fact that isn’t going away.
As you would expect, both said all the right things last week. They’re prepared to give their best effort while concentrating on this season. They’re intent on keeping their options open. They haven’t ruled out re-signing with the Sabres. Both have been truthful over the years, so there was no reason to doubt their sincerity.
But where is this going?
“It’s tough to say,” Vanek said. “I don’t know how this team is going to be. I like our back end. I like our goaltenders. Up front, our bottom six are very deep. Our top six need to be good every night to compete. I don’t know how good we’re going to be in January and February. For me, it’s going to be day by day.
“To look ahead and make an assumption, I don’t look at it that way. I’ve always liked it here. I’ve enjoyed it. Leave or not, I will never have a bad thing to say. To make an assumption that I’m here because I have to be here, it’s unfair. I don’t look at it that way. I’m not here to just wait it out.”
Said Miller: “It is weird. It’s going to play out over the course of the season. It’s not something that has been coming up lately. We’re trying to see what this year is going to look like. We’re trying to get organized to the point where we know what we’re going to play and how we’re going to play. Thomas is doing his thing, and I’m doing my thing.”
Regier is doing his thing, too. That’s precisely the problem.
The issue isn’t with Miller and Vanek, but the possibility of success when considering the time left on their contracts, the time left in their careers and the Sabres’ history. What are the chances that Regier will turn the Sabres into a playoff team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender, before their deals expire?
Miller and Vanek will soldier forward with class, but they’re not blind. They’ve watched enough good players walk out the door in the past seven years to lose confidence in the organization. Regardless of what they say publicly, anyone in their position would question whether the Sabres had competent management.
Let’s not forget that Terry Pegula arrived with an open checkbook and orders to win the Cup in three years. You might say it hasn’t worked out. The Sabres have gone backward in their former division (the Northeast), finishing third twice and last once in his three full seasons as owner.
Overall, they have missed the playoffs four times in six years and seven times in 11 years.
And yet Pegula is allowing Regier to rebuild his own team. I’ll say it again: If a team needs rebuilding, it wasn’t built right the first time.
The Sabres want it both ways, as evidenced by the passive-aggressive nature of their general manager. They want to compete this season knowing darned well they can’t win it all, so they keep Miller and Vanek and pray for the best while selling the notion that they’re building for the future.
If the idea was to secure a better future for the franchise and take necessary steps needed to win a title, Miller and Vanek should have been in the press box late last season. More losses would have improved the Sabres’ draft position, which would have increased their chances for better players and a brighter future.
Miller won six of his final eight decisions. Vanek had four goals and seven points in his final seven games. Imagine the outcry if either suffered a career-threatening injury in April that would have threatened a potential trade in the offseason. There was little to gain by having them in the lineup.
And that hasn’t changed.
I suppose their kiddie corps could come together and turn things around this season, but there’s a greater chance for failure. Regier braced fans for suffering. They suffered enough with Miller and Vanek making a combined $12.25 million, not to mention their $13.3 million hit against the salary cap. They could certainly suffer without them.
Fans are left with little hope, so they might as well appreciate Miller and Vanek with their careers with the Sabres entering their final stages. Both want to win a Cup whether it happens in Buffalo or somewhere else. Nobody should be surprised if Vanek takes less money to play in Minnesota. Who knows? Maybe Miller will join him.
Both emphasized last week how they appreciated one another going back to their days in Rochester, when Miller was a high-strung goaltender with a short fuse while Vanek had the body of a fraternity brother but the hands of a surgeon. They were friends and teammates, kids who were trying to find their way into the NHL.
Look at them now.
Last week during practice, Vanek couldn’t help but smile after Miller stoned him on a one-timer from the slot. You wonder how many times they shared similar moments over the years, when their futures in Buffalo were secure and the Sabres were a promising team going in the right direction. You wonder what’s going through their minds now.
Vanek will turn 30 in January. He’s married and has three kids. He’s coaching his son’s youth hockey team along with Kevyn Adams, Teppo Numminen and Craig Rivet. Miller turned 33 in July. He’s married and mature, a long way from the kid who acted as if his career was ending when he chucked a ball of tape across the dressing room.
When was that again? Ah, yes, it was 10 years ago, the year before Vanek arrived in Rochester. You wonder how we’ll look back on the Sabres 10 years from now.