Buffalo Sabres left winger Thomas Vanek, who would have been an unrestricted free agent after the season, goes from the worst team in the Eastern Conference to a New York Islanders team with talent and fresh off a playoff appearance.

The rebuilding of the Buffalo Sabres took its biggest step yet Sunday night as the team traded co-captain and perennial scoring leader Thomas Vanek. It’s a deal that added substantial assets to the organization and has the potential to bring even more.

The Sabres shipped Vanek to the New York Islanders for accomplished scorer Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in the 2014 NHL draft and a second-round selection in 2015. It’s a blockbuster swap that would generate headlines at the frantic trade deadline, and it’s even more significant this early in the season.

“It was a deal that has been worked on off and on for a while,” General Manager Darcy Regier said in First Niagara Center. “It was something that we felt we had to do. Our focus is on trying to acquire assets, in this case draft picks, that are going to allow us to continue improving.”

Regier has sold owner Terry Pegula on a plan to reconstruct the faltering organization through the draft. Based on their 2-10-1 record, the 30th-place Sabres are in position to pick near the top next June and will also have the Islanders’ pick. In addition, Buffalo possesses three second-round selections in each of the next two years.

“I don’t love where we are,” Regier said. “I love what we’re doing, and I believe in the direction we’re going.

“With where our hockey club is, the first- and the second-round picks are important. Whether we use the picks to select players at the draft or we use them to continue to acquire and improve the hockey club as we go forward through this season has yet to be determined.”

Moulson, like Vanek, is in the final year of his contract. He is expected to arrive in town for tonight’s game against Lindy Ruff and the Dallas Stars, but it’s very possible he won’t stay long. Pending unrestricted free agents are prime targets to move at the trade deadline, and Moulson is a three-time, 30-goal scorer who should attract interest and bring a substantial return.

“Most of these deals in the past have been deadline deals,” Regier said. “The deadline will come again.”

The heat has been on the Sabres, and specifically Regier, to do something to improve the fortunes and morale of the hapless club. Though the departure of Vanek does nothing to help the immediate outlook, the picks provide hope – if they are used correctly.

“It is exciting when you can get young players and you can see them grow,” Regier said. “The hard part is when you don’t win games while they’re growing. It makes it difficult. It’s short-term pressures and it’s a long-term plan that is going to get it done, and you have to deal with those two.”

Regier has heard fans chant for his firing during games, but he has historically refused to bow to outside pressures. He said that was again the case with this deal.

“You have to believe in what you’re doing,” Regier said. “I don’t want to show any lack of respect to our fans, but internally it’s just doing the work and focusing on what our plan is and trying to execute it as well and as soon as possible. That is on behalf of the fans.”

The departure of the 29-year-old Vanek has been expected since last season. He wasn’t willing to sign a contract extension with the rebuilding organization, and the Sabres couldn’t let him walk away without getting something in return.

The 2003 first-round draft pick leaves as one of the best scorers in Buffalo history. He recorded 254 goals and 497 points in 598 games with the Sabres, with the goal total placing him fifth on the franchise’s all-time list.

“He’s been an outstanding player, outstanding teammate, citizen to the organization,” Regier said. “We wish him only the best going forward.”

Vanek heads to an improving Islanders team that boasts Most Valuable Player candidate John Tavares. The Islanders are also looking to make a splash prior to their 2015 relocation to Brooklyn.

“Even when you know it’s coming there’s the initial surprise,” Stephen Bartlett, Vanek’s agent, said by phone after talking with his client. “Once he started thinking about it, he started to get excited that he may have the chance to play with Tavares and have the tools for a good season.

“He’s enjoyed his time in Buffalo, and it’s tough to leave friends and the team. At the same time it’s a clear rebuild, which is why he put off the process of re-signing. It’s good that he decided to wait.”

Moulson is also a 29-year-old left winger who has impressive scoring ability. He’s eclipsed the 30-goal mark three times for the Islanders, topping out at 36 in 2011-12. He had 15 goals and 44 points in 47 games last season and has recorded six goals and nine points in 11 games this year.

He’s finishing a three-year, $9.4 million deal that includes a salary cap hit of $3.13 million. Vanek’s cap number is $7.14 million.

“On one hand surprised by the trade but another not really,” Moulson’s agent, Wade Arnott, said in an email to The News after talking with the winger. “Matt will now have the opportunity to choose where he wants to play whether that is Buffalo or elsewhere in free agency. He is heading to Buffalo with an open mind. No conversations yet but interested in hearing Sabres plans.”

The transaction focus for the Sabres turns to goaltender Ryan Miller. He’s also in the last year of his contract and hasn’t wanted to negotiate a new deal. Though goalies are harder to trade and historically bring a less-substantial return, the 33-year-old is having a solid season despite getting little help in front of him.

“I’ve really had no discussions of late with regard to any of our other potential free agents,” said Regier, who added he converses weekly with other general managers. “Anytime a player plays better you get more, and when he plays worse you get less. It’s obviously good for our organization. It’s great for Ryan and it means a lot.”

The trade came on the eve of Ruff’s much-anticipated return. Ruff, fired in February during his 16th year as coach, will walk to the visitor’s bench in First Niagara Center for the first time tonight.

“He’s got a fresh new perspective on things, and some of that applies here as well,” Regier said. “Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to talk to him. It’ll be good to see him.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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