Monday, March 11, 2013

It's a good season to be a crappy team

As a fan the Buffalo Sabres it's never a good thing to be watching inconsistent at best hockey as the team plummets to the bottom of the NHL standings.

Inconsistent, uninspired play causes more and more fans to become emotionally detached as hope fades, reality sets in and the end is pretty much a foregone conclusion--outside of the playoffs once again.

That's not to mention that the people within the Sabres organization--former coach Lindy Ruff, fourth-liners Matt Ellis and Cody McCormick--are bearing the brunt of the teams demise, going through life changes that not only affect them, but their families as well. And that sux even more for them.

But out of this malaise, one can find a positive. Maybe even a couple of positives.

First off, like my friend Cisco pointed out a few weeks ago, "if you're gonna suck, it might as well be in a shortened season." In this case we Sabres fans will need to sit through a total of 48 games of ineptitude this year as the team seems destined for a top-10 (or higher) pick in the draft. They could even end up with a top-3 pick, and maybe even a #1 overall if the pingpong balls bounce their way.

A poor 2013 campaign should also lead to further changes within the organization and a desperately needed breath of fresh air in the front office.

Ruff was fired while in the midst of his 16th season as bench-boss for the team. His boss, GM Darcy Regier, is in his 16th season as well. No one ever thought that Ruff would be gone while Regier was in charge.

Regier fired Ruff.

And despite the fact that Regier received an extension from Sabres owner Terry Pegula prior to the season, one would believe that another season outside the playoffs will punch his ticket out of Buffalo as well. For many fans, this is something that's been a long time coming.

The promotion of Rochester Americans coach Ron Rolston to replace Ruff is notable and possibly foreboding. Instead of Regier bringing in another veteran (or some would say, retread) of his choice and signing him to a multi year contract, the organization is now in neutral until the season is over. The Sabres have an "interim" head coach.

Rolston has been doing an outstanding job, though, considering the mess he walked into. He began by working on the defense, which has been much better. Then he worked on a powerplay that had been awful, and that produced powerplay goals in back-to-back games while looking much more fluid. Plus he's been able to get some secondary scoring lately.

But, the fact of the matter remains--the team is 0-3-1 in it's last four games, 3-4-2 under Rolston. They are 9-14-3 for the season, sit 14th in the conference, 29th in the league. This team is performing pretty much the same way they did under Ruff.

It's highly doubtful (though not impossible) that the team goes on another late season drive. Goalie Ryan Miller, despite the numbers, has been playing outstanding hockey and he always gives the team a chance to win.

But even if he continues to play well, the defense tightens further, the powerplay begins clicking beyond the 11% conversion rate, and the bottom-nine forwards continue to contribute, they have a tough road to hoe. They are seven points out of eighth place with six teams to jump. The last place Florida Panthers are only one point behind them in the conference.

Methinks that this would be the season to continue to make fundamental changes to the organization.

The first was the firing of Ruff. The exit of Regier would also be the next logical step. This team under Rolston shows no signs of being any better than they were under Ruff. Which one could conclude is a direct result of the collection of players that Regier put together.

We start with Regier's "vaunted" core of players--the Rochester Guys, as team president Ted Black called them. That group is slowly being dismantled with only three remaining--Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, and Jason Pominville. You could throw in forward Drew Stafford as well, but he was just outside that "core" group.

All three--Miller, Vanek and Pominville--will be unrestricted free agents at the end of next season. All three of them carry some pretty hefty cap-hits--Miller, $6.25m; Vanek, $7.1m; Pominville, $5.3m. And all three, because they are the Sabres best players, would be coveted were they placed on the market, despite their cap-hit and the remaining year on their contract.

As for the Sabres organization, two years from now, it's doubtful that the team will be able to retain all three with the cap going on a downward trend near-future. That's even if they all would want to return.

Then there is a group of veterans who will be unrestricted free agents at season's end:  defensemen Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, Adam Pardy and Alexander Sulzer.

They're joined by forwards Jochen Hecht and John Scott as UFA's.

Regehr and Leopold could be looked upon as solid additions to a playoff team while Pardy and Sulzer should get some interest for a team looking to add depth on the blueline. Teams could be convinced that Hecht is a bottom-six center with defensive acumen who would add depth to a playoff bound team. So there is some value, especially on defense, to the collection of pending UFA's on a team going nowhere.

Another positive for this shortened season is the fact that there are a lot of teams in the playoff hunt at this time, those who decide to sell early will have the market all to themselves. The law of supply and demand is clearly on the side of those teams who are willing to deal the next three weeks up to the April 3 trade deadline.

Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun quotes a league executive as saying, 'There aren't going to be many teams out of it.'

According to Garrioch, one team in the East is already looking to deal. The Florida Panthers have already "hung up the 'For Sale' sign outside the BB&T Center," he said while quoting two league execs as saying, "Dale Tallon is willing to listen to all offers because his club is virtually eliminated from the playoff race."

The Panthers are said to be willing to move almost anybody on the team with their forwards said to be drawing the most interest.

Should Buffalo "hang up the For Sale sign," their defense, with four pending UFA's would garner interest for playoff-bound/playoff-hopeful teams.

Garrioch mentions that the St. Louis Blues "want a top-four blueliner." He adds in that Carolina and the NY Rangers are looking for defensive help as well.
All-in-all, the Sabres as they have six "rentals" to dangle the next three weeks and maybe even one top-end player with a year left on his contract who could be had as well.

That's a bevy of picks and/or prospects to use for rebuilding.

So, Sabres fans, fret not. The shortened season is over half way done and you only had to sit through 25 games of misery thus far.

Be happy, the GM you loathe shouldn't be able to wiggle out of this one and should be gone come season's end.

There should be at least a few draft picks and maybe a prospect or two headed back to Buffalo as their rental players head to playoff-bound/playoff hopeful teams.

With so many teams looking to make the playoffs, it should be one of the better sellers markets in recent memory. A sellers market means an even better return than normal for rentals.

And if the team is so inclined, they could move one of their "big three" and get themselves a pretty hefty return as well, plus open up some cap-space for next season.

If those weren't enough positives in this dismal season, a continued spot in the cellar means that the team could see their first top-five pick since Thomas Vanek 10 years ago.

It has all the markings of a quick rebuild.

Assuming, of course, they have a real hockey man to take the reigns of the process.

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