TAMPA, Fla. — The Buffalo Sabres will be in the midst of a wave of emotion tonight when they play the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Early Wednesday morning, the game became a big target for hockey watchers across North America when it was learned that it will mark the return of Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos after he’s missed 45 games with a broken leg.
But it will now also mark the debut of former New York Rangers standout Ryan Callahan in the Tampa Bay lineup after he was acquired for beloved veteran Marty St. Louis in a blockbuster trade of captains that stunned Lightning fans.
Television news coverage here used the words “heartbreak” in on-screen graphics to describe the loss of St. Louis, who asked out to move near his Connecticut home – and to get away from GM Steve Yzerman, who had initially snubbed him from the Team Canada Olympic selections before naming him as Stamkos’ replacement.
“That’s going to be really weird,” said Sabres winger Drew Stafford, who compared the shock of the deal to Buffalo’s trade of Ryan Miller. “It’s a guy that’s been the face of the franchise and been an influence for a lot of players. When Nathan Gerbe was here, he really looked up to Marty. Tyler Ennis is the same way. Marty has a lasting impact on a lot of players.”
St. Louis won the Hart and Art Ross trophies in 2004 and won the Art Ross again in 2013. Even at age 38, he entered Wednesday’s games with the most points in the league since the start of the 2009-10 season (388 points in 351 games). St. Louis has 29 goals and 61 points this season and also one year remaining on his contract at $5.625 million.
“He has been one of the greatest players in the organization’s history but in the end we honored his request today,” Yzerman said.
St. Louis immediately flew to New York to play in the Rangers’ game against Toronto. Before he left, he released a statement to Tampa Bay fans in which he referenced his trade request.
“I know many of you are disappointed with me for my decision to want to leave,” St. Louis wrote. “I would rather not discuss what brought me to that decision, but in the end this is a decision for my family.
“I respect the fact that many of you do not agree with my decision and are angry with it. All I really can say is that I am sorry and I am very appreciative of the support you have shown me through the years.”
Callahan is a pending free agent who could not come to terms with the Rangers on a long-term deal in the $6 million per year range, especially when he pushed for a no-trade clause. The Rochester native is rumored to be a top target of the Sabres if he’s available when the free agency period opens July 1.
The Sabres practiced for about 45 minutes in the Tampa Bay Times Forum but it was hard to really prepare for tonight’s game. Trainers and equipment men looking at cell phones on the bench were noticed. So were reporters doing likewise in the stands.
Coach Ted Nolan learned about the trade of Brayden McNabb and the waiver claim of Cory Conacher just as he came off the ice.
“It was pretty hard to concentrate on defensive zone coverage and neutral zone coverage and some of the aspects we have to work on on a daily basis,” Nolan said. “It’s hard to get the guys to focus. I told them if there’s ever a day to practice your concentration level, this is the day to concentrate on it.”
Winger Chris Stewart, acquired from St. Louis with goalie Jaroslav Halak, was not traded, as many observers expected. Ottawa, rumored as Stewart’s top destination, instead traded for Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky.
“You can’t read too much into it. It’s that time of the year. People make a big deal about it and either you’re going to be here or not,” said Stewart, who said he’s OK with staying in Buffalo because he’s from Toronto. “I’m excited for the challenge. If you move, you just take it one step at a time.
“It’s all out of my control,” Stewart said of Hemsky. “He’s a right winger, I’m a right winger and they did pick him up. It doesn’t take that much to figure it out.”