One great pleasure of taking vacation time, other than drinking cold beverages without the pressure of writing the next day, of course, is watching sports from a distance. That probably sounds odd to some people. The whole idea of sports writing is bringing people closer to the action, not widening the gap.
But sometimes it's healthy to get away and enjoy the view from afar without meeting demands for opinions in 140 characters or less or providing insta-reads every time some Buffalo sports figure scratches his … nose. You come back with your batteries recharged and a different, often better, perspective.
For about 10 days, I effectively unplugged from Buffalo sports while watching my younger boys play summer baseball. When other parents asked for my opinion about the Sabres' trade last week with Minnesota, I politely raised my hand and asked them to get back to me sometime after July 3. I was on vacation.
All they wanted was an immediate evaluation – "Real quick, who won the deal?" they would say – hoping I would say "Buffalo" and provide them with some semblance of comfort. It's the nature of most fans. They tend to view transactions individually with the idea enough W's in the front office means more W's in the standings.
That's true, but only to a degree. People often suggest building a team is like putting together a puzzle, finding certain pieces that snap into place to complete the big picture. But that usually applies to established teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago and Anaheim, among others.
For Jason Botterill, it's not that simple. He's not putting together a puzzle. His challenge is crocheting an afghan in which each stitch is interwoven into the next, carefully providing strength and security in a tedious and methodical process.
As it stands now, he's staring at a giant ball of yarn.
Darcy Regier tried buying a fancy comforter in the early days of the Pegula ownership, but he wound up starting the entire bed on fire. Tim Murray tried patching together tattered pieces but aimlessly zig-zagged around without any real vision. Botterill must be resisting the urge to pull the string on the whole thing and starting over.
Buffalo fans don't want to hear as much, but the Sabres aren't just few players away from becoming a playoff contender. Botterill is in the process of revamping two teams, Buffalo and Rochester, salvaging whatever he can from assets he inherited and practically starting from scratch under a rookie coach.
With that in mind, the four-player swap that sent Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno to Minnesota for Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville was one move – one stitch in the Sabres blanket, if you will – among many that are needed for the Sabres to take shape. The trade could benefit both teams. It may not help either.
For the Sabres, the trade was mostly about Scandella. They were desperate for a top-four defenseman, and he fills that need under current roster conditions. Some project him as a top-two guy who can play with Rasmus Ristolainen. It could be the case in the short term, and perhaps he'll prove as much over time.
You know they're in playoff contention when Scandella is on their second or third pairing, assuming he's not used in another move to help elsewhere. Pominville was included in the deal as a $5.6 million salary dump for Minnesota. At age 34, he can still provide supplemental scoring and leadership. Is that adequate value? It depends how much he produces and how well he leads.
Ennis, a former first-line forward in Buffalo, will be used in a complementary role in Minnesota. He had problems staying healthy, but he's a highly skilled and creative player. Foligno will give the Wild size and toughness. Both were part of the Sabres' foolhardy losing-is-winning culture that needed to be purged.
To me, broken down, the trade looks like Foligno for Scandella. Buffalo could someday wish it had Foligno, a solid two-way player who would be a terrific fourth-line player in a Stanley Cup contender. But he was playing mostly on the third line with the struggling Sabres, which was one reason the Sabres struggled.
The point is that the transaction was one move, and only one move, among many that need to be made before anyone can offer an honest assessment on the trade. The Sabres still have dead weight on the roster. The trick for Botterill is making short- and long-term use of his players in one way or another while managing the salary cap.
Each transaction comes with risk and reward. Each trade comes at a price. The same is true for moves he fails to make. All are intertwined in some fashion.
Fans were excited two years ago about Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, but Murray paid a bundle for them in a quick-fix attempt. Botterill is buying time while trying to assess their value and see if they fit in his master plan. He has options, in part because he acquired Scandella and Pominville. He also needs to find players to fill roles of the departed, namely Foligno.
Botterill could promote players from Rochester, but he still needs to maintain a strong commitment to the farm while properly developing prospects. I would say with total confidence that Botterill hired the right coach for the Amerks in Chris Taylor, who carried himself like a coach long before he became one.
Taylor and Botterill reminded me of one another some 15 years ago, when both played for the Sabres. Both were short on NHL skill but long on hockey intelligence, which kept them employed in the game. They understood how teams were assembled and what made players tick, qualities that should serve them well in their current roles.
Just remember that building a team is an inexact science. You can't simply examine individual moves and provide thumbs up or thumbs down. Each one leads to another, then another, then another. Botterill is a first-year general manager. He will make mistakes like every other GM in the history of sports.
At some point, you'll have an opportunity to take a step back and examine the organization as a whole, knowing it was put together one stitch at a time. In the meantime, my advice to you, and anyone named Pegula, would be to enjoy the offseason and hope the Sabres eventually blanket you with comfort.
What did I think of the Sabres' decisions this summer?
Get back to me later. Rest assured I'll get back to you.