The first full seasons for both Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller with Buffalo came in 2005-06. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Of the clubs that made moves at the NHL trade deadline, none sent a clearer statement of its intent to rebuild than the Buffalo Sabres.
In the days leading up to the deadline, the Sabres dealt away blueliners Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold. Considering their pending free agent status, those moves weren't unexpected.
Trading Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild, however, was another matter.
Pominville was the Sabres captain and was part of the organization since his selection in the second round of the 2001 NHL draft. He was a product of their system, part of a wave of young talent that, for two dazzling seasons following the 2004-05 NHL lockout, had the Sabres on the cusp of Stanley Cup contention.
Since 2006, through the Sabres’ heady highs and crushing lows, Pominville was a model of consistency, missing only nine regular season games from 2006-07 to 2011-12, scoring over 60 points five times, including a career-best 80 points in 2007-08. Prior to his trade to the Wild this season, he was fourth in team scoring with 25 points.
Pominville has one season remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $5.3 million and becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency in July 2014. Rather than try to re-sign him, Sabres GM Darcy Regier shipped Pominville to Minnesota for a return (two prospects, a 2013 first round pick and a 2014 second round pick), which signalled the start of a rebuilding process.
“It will continue after the season,” Regier told John Vogl of The Buffalo News. “To what extent has yet to be determined.”
Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek joined the Sabres around the same time as Pominville and are now considered prime trade candidates this summer.
Following the Pominville trade, Miller and Vanek told The Buffalo News they wanted to speak with Regier about his rebuilding plans. Regier claimed the process could take years, which could prove too long for Miller (32) and Vanek (29), who are also eligible for unrestricted free agency next July.
It remains to be seen if either player requests a trade this summer. Vanek said he doesn't wish to be part of a lengthy rebuild, while Miller's obvious unhappiness over the Sabres performance this season generated considerable speculation over his future.
Like Pominville, Miller has a limited no-trade clause in which he must specify eight teams to which he won't accept a trade. Vanek lacks such a clause, but with the salary cap declining to $64.3 million, his expensive salary ($7.14 million) won't be easy to move.
The Sabres could absorb part of either player's remaining salary for next season to facilitate a trade. That's what they did in the Pominville deal, keeping $225,000 from his contract this season and $900,000 next season to help keep the Wild below the cap.
Of the two, Miller's trade value will likely be higher. The single season on his contract makes him more affordable than Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and the remaining nine years and $40.5 million on his contract.
This summer's free agent market is thin on goalies, with Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom, Phoenix's Mike Smith and Detroit's Jimmy Howard the best of the bunch, and there's no guarantee they won't be re-signed before July. Miller, a former Vezina Trophy winner and First Team All-Star, would attract considerable interest in this summer's trade market.
Miller might prefer being dealt to a California-based club to be closer to his actress wife, but neither the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks nor San Jose Sharks have a need for his services.
The Phoenix Coyotes could be interested if Mike Smith departs via free agency, but given the ongoing uncertainty over their ownership, they might not even be in Arizona next season. Regardless, it's unknown if Miller would accept a trade to the Coyotes.
Any club interested in Miller could seek permission from the Sabres to speak with his agent about signing a contract extension as a condition of a trade.
The same thing goes for Vanek, who has twice reached the 40-goal mark in his eight-year NHL career. Low-scoring clubs like the Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators could have interest in him.
Based upon the return for Pominville, Regier would seek high draft picks, top prospects and/or promising young talent for Miller or Vanek.
Another Sabre to keep an eye on is gritty forward Steve Ott. Acquired last summer in a trade with the Dallas Stars, Ott's contract also expires next summer and like Miller and Vanek, he would also like to speak with Regier about the Sabres plans.
Struggling Drew Stafford could also be peddled this summer, but considering the decline in his performance this season, his contract (two years at $4-million per season) could make him a tough sell this summer.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).