On deadline day, Buffalo Sabres general manager Darcy Regier either saved his jobor at very leastkept Sabres fans from marching on First Niagara Center with torches and pitchforks.
The Sabres' GM stole the show on February 27 by making two last-minute trades that made the team better both now and in the future.
Regier traded third-line center Paul Gaustad and a fourth-round pick to Nashville for a first-round pick. He also sent prospect Zack Kassian and defenseman Marc Gragnani to Vancouver for center Cody Hodgson and defenseman Alexander Sulzer.
Famed play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret would probably say of the trades,
"call a cop, he robbed 'em blind!"
But in order to understand the importance of the Monday deadline for Regier, we have to rewind to last March. New owner Terry Pegula became the city's darling midway through his first press conference when he declared that the "sole reason for this franchise's existence is to win the Stanley Cup." While in a state of ecstasy over the team's new credo, the only thing that could bring fans down was Pegula's decision to keep Regier at his post.
While the Sabres' GM had built a Stanley Cup finalist in the late 90s and two teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals, his welcome had become severely worn by poor deadline trades, July 1 stagnation, and the loss of the team's Presidents Trophy stars Daniel Briere and Chris Drury in the summer of 2007. Deadline deals to bring in Dominic Moore and Raffi Torres had failed miserably and the lack of a shakeup of the core players after years without a playoff series victory had confidence low. But Regier never had an owner like Pegula before. Former owner Tom Golisano required the team "always stay in the black" and the previous ownership went bankrupt.
With all restrictions tossed thoroughly into Niagara Falls, the Sabres went buck wild in free agency, signing forward Ville Leino and blueliner Christian Ehrhoff to long-term deals and trading for defenseman Robyn Regehr. In the process, he re-signed Drew Stafford, inked Tyler Myers to a long-term deal, and wrapped up several restricted free agents. When all was said and done, the Sabres painted themselves into a salary cap corner and ramped up expectations to Cup-or-bust level.
And then they actually had to play hockey games. That didn't go so well.
A rash of injuries, struggles with chemistry, Milan Lucic blasting Ryan Miller, his subsequent injury and the all-out failure to score later, the Sabres found themselves in the bottom three of the Eastern Conference, thinking draft pick.
Then, before saving his job via the deadline, Miller saved every darn puck shot in his direction. Miller, looking much more like the 2009 version, had three shutouts in February and gained points in 10 of 12 starts. Since the All-Star break, he's had 10 quality starts (two goals or fewer, or .912 save percentage or higher). Miller's performance gave the Sabres an outside shot at the playoffs. Basically, the guy once dubbed "best goalie in the World" returned to good health coming off two concussions, regained trust in his teammates post-Lucic and gave his team a chance.
Heading into Monday's deadline, the team was just good enough to make attempts to improve and just far enough behind (12th place) to justify dealing one of their unrestricted free agents, Gaustad. Before the deadline, there were reports Regier was trying to re-sign his faceoff specialist. But when talks reached an impasse, the Sabres' GM found a buyer. The market was high for Gaustad. With so many contenders looking for depth at center as well as penalty killing and toughness, "Goose" seemed a good fit for multiple teams. Simple economics took over. The demand was high and supply was low, especially after Sammy Pahlsson was traded to Vancouver, and Nashville overpaid.
While the move agitated Miller, it improved the Sabres long term. While Gaustad is good at faceoffsgenerally amongst the league's besta player with such low offensive productivity rarely garners a first round pick. Gaustad has never scored more than 36 points and only has 17 in 56 games this season. Of course, his offensive zone starts are around 40 percent and penalty killing is solid. But if the chances were low at keeping him in July and the chances of the Sabres making the playoffs were low and the offer was high, the deal was a no-brainer.
Getting Nashville to overpay for a third-liner was solid, but moving winger Zack Kassian for Cody Hodgson was darn-near brilliant. Multiple team sources said Kassian lacks the drive to play the consistent physical game that expected of him. Kassian has been hyped as the next Lucic, but in the American Hockey League this season he was
rarely physical. His "mean streak" that he showed in his time in juniors did not carry over. That combined with
some bad off-the-ice decisions and the rise of another young, physical prospect Marcus Foligno made him expendable.
The Sabres' organization understandably had serious doubts about Kassian as the next Lucic. Regier recognized, however, that Kassian's reputation still made him valuable. He was able to deal the 21-year-old winger to Vancouver, a team in desperate need for toughness. In exchange, the Sabres received a young center with scoring capabilitysomething they've lacked since Briere and Drury's exits.
There are many who have the same doubts about Hodgson as the Sabres had about Kassian. Only time will tell us whether either turns out to be what they are projected to be. But where we stand now, the Sabres gave up a fourth-line wing with off-ice and commitment issues for a center with the potential to play on their top line.
The only gaffe Regier may have made was dealing Marc Gragnani for Alexander Sulzer. Gragnani has shown offensive potential that may make him perfect for Vancouver. In Buffalo, there's a sign outside the locker room that reads, "one-way players not welcome." In Vancouver, that's not the case. Gragnani led the Sabres in points during their playoff series with the Flyers last season and had a scoring touch on the power play this year after turning over one too many pucks for Lindy Ruff's liking and finding himself in the press box. In return for a player with offensive upside, the Sabres got nothing. Sulzer is a career minor leaguer with little potential. This one, Regier might regret.
Whether Gragnani turns into the next Erik Karlsson is irrelevant at the moment. For now, Regier has earned back the fans' and quite possibly the owner's trust as a capable general manager. He made a difficult and likely unpopular move among the players to deal Gaustad for the greater good and stole a high-potential center for an over-hyped prospect. And by Tuesday, the pitchforks were on the ground, the torches extinguished, and the fans feeling good about next year. Oh, what a difference a day makes.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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