Tonawanda News

March 11, 2014

DUVALL: Sabres team is all about the future now

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The thought occurs I never offered my take on the Sabres' trade deadline maneuvering. I know you were waiting with baited breath, so sorry to leave you hanging:

In general, I think they did fairly well in converting players they were going to lose in the off season for nothing into assets that will help in this rebuilding process.

But there is an essential reality: They traded arguably the three best players off what was already a last-place team. This is what bottoming out looks like. And make no mistake, this is now indisputably the least talented Sabres roster in the franchise's history. 

Sorry to say, there is no reason to watch the remaining 20 games this season from a team perspective unless it's out of sheer habit. Barring some highly unlikely extended winning streak, the team has locked up 30th place in the NHL. 

On the player front, the team has become even more uninteresting with the departure of franchise goaltender Ryan Miller, feisty captain Steve Ott and Matt Moulson, who felt like the last guy on the team who could score with any consistency. 

But there's good news. The team will have five or six first round draft selections over the next three years, including two — and possibly three — in 2015, which is projecting as the deepest and most talented draft classes in the last decade. If the Sabres hit on those picks fans will almost assuredly look back in a decade at the 2015 draft as the real turning point in our journey out of the woods.

Lost in all of the trade news was a nice perk of being in last place — your choice of any player waived by another team. That brought Cory Conacher, a graduate of my alma mater Canisius College, back to Buffalo. He's potentially a fantastic fit. Conacher should be motivated to play closer to home (he's a southern Ontario native) and in front of fans who have known about him since his collegiate career. He's not a game changing player by himself but if the team can install talent around him, Conacher is an excellent complimentary player. While with Tampa Bay he played with Steven Stamkos and proved he can produce steadily when paired with a talented group of players.

Sabres general manager Tim Murray sent two second round picks back to the Los Angeles Kings for two young forwards who project as potential top-six players. I'm much more in favor of this approach than simply stockpiling draft picks. High first round selections can contribute immediately but once you get past the elite talent in a draft class you're looking at adding players who realistically won't compete at the NHL level for two or three seasons.

While the reality is the Sabres — assuming they make the right moves in this rebuilding effort — won't be good for at least that long, waiting on the if-come of a raft of 18-year-olds is hardly appealing. They can cut down on some of the rebuilding time by converting picks into players farther along in the developmental process. As a season ticket holder staring down the prospect of paying more money to watch a last-place team, anything they can do to move this process along is a good thing.

Finally, it appears the best trade for the Sabres all season was one that didn't have to make at all. Over the last month, cornerstone defenseman and former rookie of the year Tyler Myers looks as though he's returned to the dominant form that had us all drooling when he broke in as a teenager.

If the Sabres have found a way to trade the Tyler Myers of the past three-plus seasons for the one who looked like a perennial Norris Trophy candidate it would immediately improve the roster dramatically and offer a blue line already stocked with young talent — Mark Pysyk, Rasums Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov are all former first round selections who have shown promise in juniors and in the American league — a potentially fearsome unit in a season or two.

Myers has played like a future captain and franchise defenseman. If Murray and Co. can rely on a restored Myers and a stable of young defensemen around him it will allow them to focus attention on their depleted group of forwards in the drafts to come. 

It remains to be seen whether Miller's backup in goal, Jhonas Enroth, can handle day-to-day duties but the early results since Miller left are encouraging: In the five games since Miller was traded, Enroth and imported young netminder Michael Neuvirth have combined for an impressive .949 save percentage and 2.02 goals against average — and did it against two of the league's top teams in San Jose and Boston. 

The state of Sabreland is sad. It's easily the worst team in 20 years, maybe ever. 

But all is not lost. With a few more high-end draft selections added over the course of the next few years, by the time 2016 rolls around we could be talking about a playoff return and, hopefully as these young players grow through that process, a return to being a genuine contender.

For the first time in a long time I feel like the ship is pointed in the right direction. Now it will just take patience from fans and the team's front office alike to wait for these investments to mature.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.