SHUFFLING OFF TO BUFFALO: All of which makes a nice transition to a discussion of the Buffalo Sabres, the latest team to discover that bumping the payroll doesn’t necessarily translate into on-ice success. For years, the Sabres were another small-market team, spending judiciously, and occasionally letting star players (Chris Drury, Daniel Briere) go because they couldn’t - or wouldn’t - meet their payroll demands. Everything was supposed to change this summer, when new owner Terry Pegula opened his checkbook to add the likes of Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino. It was a psychological as much as a practical gesture - a sign that the Sabres were playing with the big boys now and could flex their financial muscle with the best of them. Why they even took a bad contract off of Calgary’s hands (Ales Kotalik’s) to make the Regehr trade possible, even though they had no intention of keeping Kotalik on their NHL roster.
So what happens? After a semi-promising start, the bottom completely falls out and now, after 11 consecutive road losses, the Sabres look like the most dispirited, disorganized team in the NHL, searching for answers and seemingly unable to come up with any.
Two years removed from a Vezina Trophy season, goaltender Ryan Miller looks completely lost. Ehrhoff got all that money because he scored 50 points for the Vancouver Canucks last year, tied with Dan Boyle and Kris Letang for seventh among NHL defenceman. This year, he’s been hurt and is nowhere to be found in the top 20. For his last seven years in Calgary, Regehr was always a plus player, someone who adapted pretty well to the “new” NHL, even if he wasn’t the most mobile of rearguards. This year, he’s a minus-13. Leino, who thrived in Philadelphia largely because of a nice fit on the line with Briere and Scott Hartnell, hasn’t found any chemistry with anyone in Buffalo - and 10 points in his first 35 games is the result. Leino’s play with the Sabres is reminiscent of the 55 games he played over two years for the Detroit Red Wings, breaking into the NHL, when he managed just 16 points. As for Brad Boyes, who was picked up at last year’s trading deadline as a salary dump by the Blues, he has been the same maddeningly inconsistent player that has seen him drop from the career high 72 points he recorded in the 08-09 season to just 11 in his first 33 this year.
It’s a mess and cleaning it up is going to be a challenge because of a lesson that every GM with money to burn eventually realizes - the free-agent premiums you pay to sign players on July 1 will come back to haunt you eventually. Strange how roles reverse. The Sabres’ New York state rivals, the Rangers, finally figured that out. They now operate the way the Detroit Red Wings do - with judicious free-agent buys (Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik) supplemented by a whole lot of homegrown talent (just about everybody else on their NHL roster). The Sabres, meanwhile, take a page out of the Rangers’ old operating manual and it blows up in their faces.
LEAF TRADE TALK: Even without the injured Jon Michael Liles, the Toronto Maple Leafs have seven NHL-calibre defencemen on their roster, meaning that somebody pretty good sits out most nights - either one of their youngsters (Jake Gardiner had his turn this week) or the veteran Mike Komisarek. It is a position of strength and because young defencemen are so valuable and so hard to develop, there will be a temptation to keep them all around because, let’s face it, you can never have too many, even if it means tough line-up choices for coach Ron Wilson when they all get healthy. But this is why all the Luke Schenn talk. If the Leafs legitimately want to add a big-bodied top-six forward, it will likely cost them Schenn, just because his value, as a top-five draft choice, far exceeds what Carl Gunnarson or Keith Aulie or Cody Franson would fetch in a trade. This is a reality of the NHL trade game. You move a little piece, you get a little piece back. You move a big piece, you might get Bobby Ryan.