Sabres’ growing pains could last a while

Adam Proteau

In eight games this season, the Buffalo Sabres have won just once and that victory came in a shootout. They have the NHL’s most abysmal offense – they’ve been outscored by almost a 2:1 ratio – and their third jersey is sufficiently gaudy to make their fans consider emigrating.

Things couldn’t get much worse for them, right? Wrong. This is professional sports. I’ve watched professional sports in Toronto for nearly four full decades. I assure you, things always can get worse. And if I had to place a bet, I’d bet the Sabres are headed for waters rough enough to make their current predicament seem like a teapot tempest.

Things are bound to get worse for the Sabres as soon as the inevitable happens and star Ryan Miller is traded. The 33-year-old may not be the same goalie he was a few years back, but he’s been very strong this season (only once in five games has he posted a save percentage below .932) and the removal of his presence – despite the fact the team has Jhonas Enroth and Matt Hackett around to replace him over the long term – won’t make Buffalo’s players more confident. And because the team waited too long to deal Miller, the return they get on any transaction for the pending unrestricted free agent isn’t going to be as bountiful as it would’ve had management bit the bullet and moved him years ago.

Ditto for fellow-soon-to-be-UFA Thomas Vanek. The Sabres’ best player is widely speculated to be destined for the Minnesota Wild because of family reasons, so many believe GM Darcy Regier will have little choice but to ship him out prior to the March 5 trade deadline. If you thought Buffalo’s offense was anemic now, just wait. Their final roster could make the current one look like the Oilers of the 1980s.

Once the Sabres say goodbye to Vanek and Miller, they can truly start a new era. In the summer of 2014, Regier’s management team will have some $32 million in salary cap space to expedite the rebuild. But here’s another reason why Buffalo’s suffering is likely to extend into next year at least: Forget about the reality there aren’t many top players who’ll hit the open market next summer (would you throw millions at Marian Gaborik and/or Dany Heatley? Stop laughing and answer!); do you think any prominent NHL UFA is going to look at this franchise and decide to move heaven and earth to join it?

Not a chance. I love Buffalo, but we know the city isn’t regarded as the South Beach of Upstate New York; the only thing that will drive free agents there is winning. The Sabres’ improvement is going to have to come from within, or it won’t come at all. And let’s say team owner Terry Pegula decides to finally cashier Regier and hire a new GM after this disastrous season; that will tack on time to the turnaround as Regier’s replacement moves his own people and preferred players into the organization.

If you’re expecting a playoff team in the next couple years, you’re courting disappointment.

It’s not all doom-and-gloom for Buffalo. Regier did very well in trading former captain Jason Pominville for Hackett and forward Johan Larsson; as well, most draft observers believe the Sabres had a splendid 2013 prospects haul that eventually will lead to better days for their NHL product.

I won’t tell you that’s untrue. I will tell you the word “eventually” can sound more comforting than the reality. Ask Oilers fans how your palate reacts when you’ve been fed nothing but hope for half-a-decade or more.

Once you’ve fallen from that perennial playoff-competitor echelon, it’s no small task to return. So settle in for a turbulent climb, Sabres fans. And bring a barf bag or two. Better safe than sorry, even if your team is bound to remain sorry for some time before it’s safe to bet on them again.