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Cullen: Sabres present big challenge to Lafontaine, Nolan

Scott Cullen
11/13/2013 10:04:38 PM
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The Buffalo Sabres have been a complete mess in the 2013-2014 NHL season, accumulating just nine points in 20 games, and it cost general manager Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston their jobs Wednesday, with Sabres legend Pat Lafontaine taking over as President of Hockey Operations and Ted Nolan assuming head coaching duties. Scott Cullen looks at the state of a team for which things can only look up.

Last season, the Sabres finished with 48 points in 48 games, finishing 22nd out of 30 teams; not nearly good enough for the playoffs, but not utterly disastrous, which means not bad enough to secure a premium pick at the top of the first round. They traded veteran winger Jason Pominville and defenceman Jordan Leopold during the season, but seven of their top eight scorers were returning for the 2013-2014 season.

Even so, the Sabres ranked 29th in my preseason Power Rankings, with not enough proven talent, aside from left winger Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller who, as pending unrestricted free agents, were prime candidates for trade.

Of course, Vanek was traded, to the New York Islanders and the Sabres received a quality package in return, but it is a curious turn of events to allow Darcy Regier to oversee the start of a rebuilding process and take responsibility for trading the club's best player, only to clean house in the front office two-and-a-half weeks later.

Now, this doesn't mean that people shouldn't have been fired (On XM NHL Network Radio last Friday, I said that Rolston was my pick to be the next coach canned). The Sabres have been unabashedly terrible. They have one regulation win in 20 games and that was in a game at Florida in which they were outshot 45-21 by the Panthers, a team that sits a lofty 28th in the NHL standings.

The Sabres have the worst puck possession stats in the league, by a sizeable margin and, given these poor underlying conditions, will need patience in order to develop a roster that is consistently competitive because they can't even argue that they've been especially unlucky to have this poor record.

Matt Moulson, a pending unrestricted free agent who was acquired as part of the package in exchange for Vanek, has 17 points in 18 games with the Islanders and Sabres, and Cody Hodgson has 15 points in 20 games; they are the only Sabres with more than 10 points through the first 20 games of the season.

These are the skaters at the top of Buffalo's pay scale:

RW Drew Stafford, who has a $4-million cap hit, has two goals and six points. A three-time 20-goal scorer, Stafford topped out with 31 goals in 62 games as recently as 2010-2011.

LW Ville Leino, a $4.5-million cap hit through 2016-2017, has one point in eight games and has been a healthy scratch even when he's not injured.

D Christian Ehrhoff, signed through 2020-2021 at a $4-million cap hit, has four assists in 19 games. He's not playing poorly, but isn't good enough to be a difference-maker on a bad club.

D Tyler Myers, inked through 2018-2019 for $5.5-million per, has four points and is minus-9. His play has declined dramatically since his impressive rookie campaign of 2009-2010.

No team can generate positive results in a salary cap league when their highest-paid players are so unproductive.

The highest-paid player remaining in Buffalo is G Ryan Miller, who has a $6.25-million cap hit on a contract that expires at season's end. Miller has a .916 save percentage, pretty much his standard since 2010-2011, and good enough that he will likely hold some appeal on the trade market when the time finally comes to move out a 33-year-old who is not a fit for a team at this level of rebuilding. Once Miller is moved, that would be right down to the foundation.

Is there hope for the future? Sure, eventually.

The Sabres have given substantial playing time to young players this season.

Teenage defencemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov have played more than 17 minutes per game, immediately after they were drafted in 2013 and 21-year-old rookie Mark Pysyk plays 21 minutes per game on the blueline, ranking third behind Ehrhoff and Myers. As the experience with Myers has shown, there is not necessarily a linear path from teen NHL defenceman to future NHL star, so even if the young defencemen pan out, there is some risk and it should take time before they can be counted on to anchor the unit.

The Sabres also have prospects Brayden McNabb and Chad Ruhwedel toiling in the AHL for Rochester and they could be due for a look this season. Add in University of Wisconsin defenceman Jake McCabe and Buffalo has a solid crop of blueliners in the organization. Solid enough that they might want to consider sending Zadorov back to the Ontario Hockey League for another season rather than letting the first year of his entry-level deal burn as part of this disastrous campaign.

The story is less promising up front. Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson, Zemgus Girgensons, and Mikhail Grigorenko are all under 25, and Joel Armia holds potential as a scoring winger but, even in the best-case scenario, it's going to be a while before they become impact players, if any are going to have a notable impact at all. (Incidentally, Armia is ready to make his AHL debut after suffering a broken hand in training camp).

Assuming that Miller gets moved, the Sabres will have Jhonas Enroth and Matt Hackett as their top two goaltenders (depending on the return for Miller). That's not the strongest duo, but Enroth has a .914 save percentage in 60 NHL games as Miller's backup, so he's worth a try, at least while the rebuilding process is in full effect.

What is most promising for the Sabres is that they have seriously stockpiled draft picks over the next couple seasons (something for which the next GM, or even Lafontaine, can thank Regier. The Sabres own the Islanders' first-round pick in 2014 (Vanek trade) as well as second-round picks from the Kings (two, for Robyn Regehr), Wild (Pominville deal) and Islanders (Vanek) over the next two seasons, plus whatever returns they might get for their veteran unrestricted free agents that could be moved before this season's trade deadline.

Including their own first and second-round picks, the Sabres will have eight picks in the first two rounds over the next two drafts. Then consider that Miller, Moulson and Steve Ott are all pending unrestricted free agents that should hold significant appeal around the league. Getting picks and prospects in return could give the Sabres in the neighbourhood of a dozen picks in the first two rounds over the next two drafts. Times are tough now, but those picks should really replenish the talent in the organization.

(Note: the Sabres likely can't empty the cupboard completely because they will have to get to the salary cap floor in 2014-2015 and, per Cap Geek, they have 14 players under contract for $34.9-million next season.)

Draft picks and prospects are uncertain, but if a team is as bad as the Sabres are currently, it's encouraging to have picks that could help change the direction of the franchise and, given their current place in the standings, the Sabres are not likely to be dramatically better as soon as next season, which means they could be in contention for the Connor McDavid Sweepstakes, also known as the 2015 NHL Draft.

Acquiring talent through the draft should ultimately change the Sabres' fortunes, but that build is a slow process -- it could be five years before a playoff berth is a reasonable expectation (or, ask the Edmonton Oilers, the process can take even longer).

In the meantime, Ted Nolan is going to have to instill a work ethic in the Sabres young players; something could have a lasting effect going forward. Given that this is already a lost season, there is no reason for Nolan not to play his young players and play them a lot, since they might as well find out who can handle playing at the NHL level.

There is a feeling, in some circles, that by digging into the franchise's past to hire Lafontaine and Nolan (and rumours have begun that ex-Sabre Rick Dudley could be the next GM), the Sabres are merely looking for some positive PR spin. Maybe that's the case. We'll have to see what kind of decisions the new braintrust makes and how well they set the franchise up for the future.

It will be a big job for a team is going to have a lot of long nights for this season and beyond.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

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