Vanek*, Hodgson, Ott, Foligno. At this point, these are the only players I really care about being on the Sabres roster after this season.
Thomas Vanek gets an asterisk because, given his current trade value, he could probably command a first round pick, a top prospect, and a roster player from a top Cup contender at this year's trade deadline. So while I'd love to build around Vanek over the next five years, it would probably be stupid not to trade him now, especially when you have to believe he'll be leaving as a UFA after next season.
If Darcy Regier has already offered Vanek an extension based on this year's performance and he's turned it down, Regier in no uncertain terms should trade him at the deadline. Therefore, given the fact that Vanek hasn't signed an extension, I would think it logical to conclude that either a) Regier hasn't offered one (which is grounds for dismissal), or b) Vanek has refused it (which is grounds for a trade).
So here's the real deal: If I'm GM of the Sabres and Thomas Vanek is no longer on my team, I'm almost by definition in full rebuild mode. Therefore, considering Regier told The Buffalo News just last week that he's "not in a blow-it-up mind-set," I think this is all you need to know to realize he really has to be the next guy out the door. As in, prior to free agency.
I don't arrive at this conclusion lightly. Click on the "Darcy Regier" category on the right sidebar, and you'll find that I've been plenty conciliatory towards the GM over the past year or so. Critical? Of course. But because, for example, it's largely pointless to complain about a GM's inability to retain players who decide to leave via free agency, it's instead better to judge him by the acquisitions he makes.
Remember, in one calendar year Regier added Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, Robyn Regehr, and Cody Hodgson. In hindsight it might be easy to find fault with at least some of these moves, but it would be disingenuous to argue that they didn't look attractive at the time. He followed this by unloading everybody's favorite whipping boy, Derek Roy, in order to acquire Steve Ott. Considering Ott is one of the only players on the entire team willing to lay it on the line every game, g'head and argue that this was a bad move.
So like any other GM in the history of sports, Darcy Regier has made bad moves and good moves. Over the years my biggest critique of his has always been his absolute loyalty to Lindy Ruff. I believe this unwillingness even to consider making a coaching change no matter what flies in the face of what it takes to be a GM in the first place. I think it prevented him from recognizing his team's generally soft play and what at least seemed to be the players' propensity to tune out its coach for extended stretches over multiple seasons.
Indeed, I thought Regier and Lindy Ruff both should've been fired five years ago, but because it became clear that this just wasn't going to happen, I guess I just began to accept reality and make the best of the situation. Still, while Regier obviously took responsibility for firing Ruff last month, I highly doubt this decision was made in isolation. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if ownership initiated the decision and gave Regier his marching orders.
And herein lies the rub. Despite Regier's efforts the past couple seasons to put together a talented roster -- it's hard to argue this team shouldn't be performing much better than it is -- the Buffalo Sabres organization has been exposed as hopelessly reactive, one lacking a vision of what it takes to be a winner. This became plainly evident in the release of Lindy Ruff, who was in no uncertain terms fired by the fans, not by a proactive management group.
In short, if leadership truly believed Ruff had overstayed his welcome, he would've been fired well before the team finally feared that fans would stop showing up for games. (Alternatively, if Pegula and Co. actually believed Ruff was their guy, the right move would've been to retain him and attempt to improve in other areas.)
If the Sabres former coach had been almost anyone other than Lindy Ruff, this little sop to the fans probably would've passed without much fanfare. But when you're talking about a guy who coached the team for 16 years, you're left wondering why the ownership team, now in its third season with the club, retained him as long as it did if it didn't believe he was the best man for the job.
I reiterate, I was not disappointed in the least that the Sabres organization decided to make a coaching change. Sometimes the best coaches lose their teams, and it appeared this was the case in Buffalo. However, this move looked less like a team reluctantly doing what it had to do and more like a flailing organization making a desperate attempt to do something -- anything -- to effect positive change.
But reality eventually catches up to you. And it appears that the reality in the Sabres front office is that, despite the lofty rhetoric about bringing Stanley Cups to Buffalo, management doesn't have a very effective game plan for winning.
Right now it almost seems that the Sabres are not just failing to make the right decisions, but they're doing the exact opposite of what they should be doing.
You can't blame a professional sports franchise for playing its best players, even sometimes to a fault, when it becomes clear that wins are less important than seeing what your team's made of. But that doesn't necessarily mean the team's making the right decision. We saw this very thing begin to unfold last week when Mikhail Grigorenko was sent back to his junior squad and T.J. Brennan was given away for almost nothing (a fifth round pick).
(Pretty soon you're going to tell me the Sabres are going to hang onto Ryan Miller for another year and let him leave for nothing after throwing Pat Kaleta under the bus!)
The Sabres are finished for the year, if for no other reason than the fact that teams are playing only within their conference this season -- meaning that everyone above them in the standings (everyone but Florida at the moment) is going to continue to get points every night. So why not give Grigorenko the chance to play with the best forwards on the team and see what he can do in that role? Despite what Regier's trying to sell, he's not going to learn anything new in juniors.
Regier's rationale for trading Brennan was that he would be claimed off waivers, as evidenced by Florida's willingness to spend a pick for him. Fair enough, but as Bucky Gleason wrote the other day, he's only 23 -- though he played fairly poorly, he's very young for a defenseman and they often need a few years to develop, so he should've at least been playing out the remainder of this failed campaign so the Sabres really got the look at him both sides deserved.
On the other hand, I'm not the GM. If Regier isn't planning to re-sign Brennan next season, then you get what you can get for him now instead of getting nothing down the road. Just seems this kid has enough potential in his shot and skating ability that he could've at least been packaged as part of some bigger trades.
Which leads to my biggest concern. If things just aren't working as currently constructed, why even give Darcy the authority to make decisions on whether to rebuild or not as we run up to free agency? Why let him determine whether to trade Miller, Vanek, and/or Pominville in the first place? Why not just clean house, for better or worse, and start the heck over? After all, you can't get much worse than 29th.
Assuming the likelihood of Regier's departure prior to the trade deadline exceedingly slim, I think we can reliably judge Regier's competence by analyzing the rather simple Thomas Vanek Effect: If Vanek either does not sign an extension or depart via trade by the 2013 NHL free agent deadline, Darcy Regier should be fired immediately.
This would be one of those situations where the "management team" needs to know the deal in advance. Because if Darcy doesn't understand this very simple concept, he is the last person you need manning the phones on deadline day.