Sending Sabre kids down is only the first step - The Buffalo News

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Sending Sabre kids down is only the first step

The Sabres began rearranging their roster Tuesday in an effort to get their house in order, sending four rookies back to school and having them play with kids their own age. Years from now, when they’re older and assuming they earned their tickets back to the NHL, they’ll see that the parent club did them a favor.

It was hardly shocking.

Anyone can add 2+2 and get 4. Well, at least Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan could, along with everyone else in the organization this year with the exception of you know who. Four kids added up to one win in regulation before LaFontaine became the brains of the operation. More transactions are on the way.

In the weeks and months ahead, LaFontaine and a new general manager will look to solve math problems that are considerably more complex. Imagine a graph showing player trajectory with ages on one side and efficiency on another, which will help them assess overall value and future contracts. The lineup will eventually line up.

Often, it comes down to math.

LaFontaine is convinced that turning around the organization doesn’t need to be a long, painstaking process, as suggested by you know who, assuming the franchise makes the right decisions. Knowing he’s in charge and having faith he will have other qualified people around him, it doesn’t seem the heavy lift that it did before he arrived.

The biggest issue looming, other than picking the next general manager, is deciding whether Ryan Miller will be the long-term answer in goal. Even if the Sabres conclude they want him for the next phase, it doesn’t mean he’ll be here. Several variables will be factored into the equation before they arrive at the final answer.

Does Miller want to stay?

Does Buffalo want to keep him?

Miller was headed for the exit before Darcy Regier beat him to the door last week. Miller decided long ago to keep his options open, a choice made easier when Regier didn’t bother approaching him about a contract extension. LaFontaine’s arrival made him pause, but ultimately he’ll do what’s best for him.

And the Sabres will do what’s best for them.

The two sides need to sit down and get a better feel for one another. Miller has earned the right to become an unrestricted free agent and should enjoy its perks. The Sabres have their own options after establishing value for the position. If they can’t reach an agreement that works for both sides, well, no hard feelings.

In the meantime, they’ve riding Miller while they can. He was back in net Tuesday against a better, deeper St. Louis team that coasted to a 4-1 victory. Apparently, my philosophy about playing Miller differs from that of LaFontaine and Nolan. In my opinion, he should be getting limited duty.

LaFontaine and Nolan’s position is understandable. They’re trying to change the collective attitude, give the Sabres confidence, turn things around and restore respectability that’s been missing for years. Nolan wants to win games. Miller gives them a better opportunity to achieve all of the above. Fair enough.

For me, playing Miller is risky business with minimal reward. Ignore his statistics. They mean almost nothing on this team. He has been terrific. In fact, he hasn’t played this well since he led the U.S. Olympic team to a silver medal in 2010 en route to the Vezina Trophy. He can’t play much better than he has this year.

The Sabres should be trying to trade him ASAP, while his value is still high. If his play tails off, or he suffers a serious injury, his trade value will plummet if not disappear. There were a few anxious moments Tuesday when Blues winger Vladimir Sobotka barreled into Miller in the second period. Otherwise, little was gained by playing him.

It’s tough to imagine the Sabres giving Miller, 33, a long-term extension for equal or more money. Goalies’ skills tend to erode in their mid-30s. It’s equally difficult to fathom Miller not finding a team willing to pay him $6.25 million a year or more. That’s a gamble that should be left for a Stanley Cup contender, such as St. Louis.

Of course, it’s tough to make a trade of any magnitude when one team doesn’t have a general manager.

LaFontaine is trying to get organized after the whirlwind last week. The euphoria that raged through the organization after his arrival could still be felt in the dressing room Tuesday morning. There was a consensus among the players that the franchise made the right decision in sending the kids for more seasoning. The Sabres are on the right path.

At some point, perhaps with the next week, LaFontaine will hire a new general manager.

You know the names out there, namely Jason Botterill, Rick Dudley, Jim Benning and now Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton. At least two of the four are expected to meet with LaFontaine & Co., this week. All have their strengths and weaknesses, their advantages and disadvantages. There is no right or wrong at this stage.

Do they want Dudley or one of the others?

Here’s a better idea: Dudley AND one of the others. Recent history has shown him to be an effective assistant GM. He helped groom Stan Bowman and Marc Bergevin in Chicago. He had a hand in turning things around in Toronto before joining Bergevin in Montreal. He could do the same thing here.

At 64, Dudley is not the long-term answer, but he would certainly be a good mentor for a first-time executive and inexperienced GM. LaFontaine played for Dudley in 1991-92, the year the star center suffered a broken jaw. It was the beginning of the end in Buffalo for Dudley, who was fired later in the season.

Understand, I’m not saying this is what the Sabres should do. I’m saying it’s what the Sabres could do. For the first time in many years, I trust the head of hockey to make the correct decision. He made the right one involving the kids Tuesday. In the grand scheme, that was easy.

It only gets tougher from here.


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