The Buffalo Sabres will be back on the ice this morning in First Niagara Center, with a quick practice before they head to the airport for a flight to Dallas and a game Monday night against the Lindy Ruff-led Stars.
The NHL’s worst team is on a three-game winning streak for the first time this season but it has to be reeling in the wake of Friday’s trade of Ryan Miller and Steve Ott and Saturday’s resignation of Pat LaFontaine, the team’s president of hockey operations.
It will be quite a scene for new goaltender Jaroslav Halak and new winger Chris Stewart to walk into – provided they even stick around. Rumors continue to have one or both getting flipped elsewhere prior to Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline.
The Miller trade ranks as one of the biggest blockbusters in franchise history and it was pulled off in bizarre fashion, with the two players being told just before pregame warm-ups. Ott, in fact, was kicking a soccer ball with teammates in an arena hallway when he was told not to dress.
“It was a little bit of a circus before the game,” defenseman Tyler Myers said after Friday’s 4-2 win over San Jose.
“That’s never happened to me in pro hockey,” added defenseman Mike Weber. “You go from everyone getting ready to getting dressed, to going out for warm-ups, to a little bit of mass chaos.”
John Scott, who was supposed to be scratched, had to hurriedly dress and take the last half of the warm-up. HarborCenter employee Ryan Vinz dressed as the backup goalie and Jhonas Enroth became a last-minute starter when told by interim coach Ted Nolan.
Just a few minutes earlier, Enroth had been in the rear of the locker room joking with team trainers, hoping a big deal didn’t happen prior to a game against the Sharks.
“About three minutes later, Coach Nolan came up to me and told me I was starting,” Enroth said. “I kind of jinxed myself.”
Nolan was first told Miller should not warm up because a deal was imminent. Then he learned the same applied to Ott. Nolan said he brought both players into his office and about five minutes later was told the trade was on.
A red-eyed Nolan had trouble composing himself after Friday’s win. He said Ott was the first player he met when he arrived in November and had quickly become one of his favorite captains. And Nolan has also been a huge Miller supporter since Day One.
“I’m a pretty emotional guy to begin with,” Nolan said. “When you start thinking about what transpired, that’s when it hits the heart strings.”
Winger Drew Stafford, a close friend to Miller, was visibly upset during a postgame interview on the MSG telecast and could not speak to reporters after the game. But following the morning skate, an introspective Stafford told The News he was having trouble processing the Sabres’ dressing room without its franchise goaltender.
“I’ve seen the core pieces go over the years,” Stafford said. “One by one, they go. But Ryan has been the face of this franchise for a long time, even longer than I’ve been here. It is going to be extremely weird.
“But we know it’s all a part of the business. At the end of the day, this is a business and sometimes people can forget that. Management has to make business decisions. It’s unfortunate as a friend. It will be tough to see him go.”
During the third period, the Sabres played Jumbotron video tributes to Ott and Miller and the crowd responded with a roaring standing ovation. The players on the bench stood up and joined their teammates on the ice in tapping their sticks in salute of their departed comrades.
“Every guy on the bench was watching those tributes,” said Weber. “Tough to hold back the emotions. It’s probably the worst part of the business, losing friends and teammates like that.”
The trade of Ott was particularly tough on Weber, who billeted with Ott’s family during his junior days in Windsor, Ont. And Weber was open about his hope that Ott might consider returning to Buffalo this summer in free agency.
“I grew up with Stevie. It was a dream come true to have him traded here and play with him the last year and a half,” Weber said. “As a hockey player and as a brother to him, it’s nice he’s going to get that chance to go play for that Cup. ... Hopefully he gets that experience and we’re able to make a good offer in the summer time and bring the boys back together.”
Miller and Ott left Buffalo on a flight to Phoenix, where they joined the Blues and will play in tonight’s game against the Coyotes.
Miller will be able to don his college and Olympic jersey number of 39, which was unavailable here because it was worn by Dominik Hasek and is expected to be retired. Ott, who will wear No. 29, will be on a forward line with former Sabre Derek Roy and Team USA Olympic shootout hero T.J. Oshie.
Ott and Roy were traded for each other in July, 2012 with Roy going to Dallas. Roy has since played for Vancouver before signing as a free agent with St. Louis last summer.
A fourth former Sabre, defenseman Jordan Leopold, is also on the St. Louis roster. The Sabres and Blues have already played in Buffalo this season but will meet April 3 in Scottrade Center.
“They’re going to a team that will have a legitimate chance this year,” Myers said of Miller and Ott. “All the best to them – just not on the night we play them.”