ott miller

If there was any doubt that the Buffalo Sabres were not locked in the throes of a full-scale rebuild, then this past weekend should have squashed any remaining uncertainty on the subject. The Sabres shipped Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis for an impressive haul that included Jarolsav Halak, Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier, a first round draft choice in 2015, and a conditional third round pick in 2016. Less than 24 hours later, the Sabres said goodbye to President of Hockey Operations Pat Lafontaine, who resigned and returned to his previous post with the NHL.

The rebuild is on. It will get uglier before it gets better, but the Sabres are on the right path.

Although Sabres general manager Tim Murray netted a decent prospect, a first round draft choice, and ‘right now’ players in Halak and Stewart, the weekend was not without controversy. Lafontaine’s resignation came amidst rumors of organizational dysfunction, which purportedly may have been over a disagreement over whether to extend Miller (Lafontaine) or trade him (Murray). Lafontaine held final say in the team’s transactions prior to the appointment of Murray as GM, thus it was Murray’s way on Friday evening. If it truly was Lafontaine’s desire to lock up a 33-year old goaltender, the team’s most attractive trade chip, to a new deal then it’s probably best that the former NHL great is out of the picture. 

Steve Ott became the third Sabres captain to find his way out of Buffalo in the past ten months, and no one should find this troubling. A rebuilding hockey club needs to make the best moves for for its future, and if that involves shipping out a captain then so be it. It happens. The Montreal Canadiens, one of the NHL’s most storied franchises, burned through three captains (Kirk Muller, Mike Keane, and Pierre Turgeon) between 1994-95 and 1996-97. This is not an issue that’s unique to recent Sabres teams.

Shortly after the blockbuster trade that saw the Sabres face of the franchise and team captain on their way out, rumors surfaced of Murray to be shopping his new pieces in Halak and Stewart. It’s a fearless approach, but not the wrong one. Halak will be a UFA in July, while Stewart has one more year left on his current deal that sees him check in with a $4,150,000 cap hit. They’re both everyday NHLers, but good chips to have with the trade deadline falling on Wednesday and an eye on assets for the future.

On top of the weekend’s big trade and Lafontaine’s departure, discussions over Ted Nolan’s future as head coach in Buffalo have reportedly begun. Nolan could be in line for an extension in the three-year range. Regardless of how you feel about Nolan as a coach, the Sabres are going to need one, and one that’s prepared to lead some very bad teams over the next couple of years. Of course, if there’s anything we’ve learned from the Pittsburgh/Chicgao model of bottoming out and building back up, it’s that head coach is the most temporary position of all in a rebuilding franchise.

There are dark days ahead for the Sabres. They’re not going to be a competitive hockey team for some time. This is when you move whatever serviceable pieces you have for stop-gaps and hope chips. It’s what Murray appears to be doing, and he shouldn’t stop at Miller and Ott. He’d be crazy not to seriously consider taking the best offers out there for Christian Ehrhoff, Matt Moulson, and Tyler Myers.

It’s not pretty in Buffalo right now, but Murray’s approach is an admirable one even it means making a lot more mess before offering any sense of clarity for the future. If you’re going to rebuild then there’s not point in repeating the process every few years, eh Edmonton?