Thomas Vanek found himself in an awkward position Saturday, knowing he may have been cleaning out his locker for the final time in First Niagara Center. He was trying to show respect for the organization that drafted him and made him a wealthy man while also offering a semblance of truth.
Vanek has made it clear that he’s not interested in staying in Buffalo and enduring a long rebuilding process. He turns 30 next January. He’ll be in the final year of a seven-year, $50 million contract that he signed after Darcy Regier & Co., allowed themselves to get backed into a corner following the Drury-Briere debacle.
He desperately wants to win a Stanley Cup, but I don’t envision a parade committee assembling any time soon. The Sabres have made numerous mistakes but kept the man who made them. If you needed a reminder, they have missed the postseason two straight years, four times in six years and seven times in 11 years.
With that in mind, Vanek was asked if he had any confidence in management to quickly rebuild the team.
“Yeah, I think so,” Vanek said. “That’s why they’re in charge. You would think they would know what they’re doing.”
Yes, you would think so, Thomas, but just because they have certain job titles doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?
“I have a year left,” Vanek said with a laugh. “I can’t speculate what he’s going to do. I haven’t talked to anyone. I don’t know what the plan is. I’m just going to leave it at that.”
Give him credit for attempting to maintain political correctness without lying. Let’s be honest, that’s quite a juggling act, even for a veteran who has been around the Webster Block a few times. Vanek would have had an easier time with a chainsaw in one hand, a sledgehammer in the other and a blow torch in the air.
The truth is often found in what isn’t said. Vanek could have thrown his confidence behind Regier and insisted his general manager was the right man for the job. He could have made a pitch for a contract extension and suggested he wanted to finish his career in Buffalo. Instead, he sounded like a man headed for the exit.
Do you blame him?
Somebody asked Vanek if would be disappointed if he was traded. Heck, I wondered if he would be more depressed if the Sabres kept him.
Players aren’t stupid. They know the organization, which showed promise when Terry Pegula purchased the franchise two years ago, is a mess. The Sabres will likely trade Vanek and Ryan Miller, their two best players, because their other choice is losing them without compensation when their contracts expire.
Nobody is coming out and saying as much publicly, but for years there’s been talk that players would be willing to stick around if the Sabres fired Regier and hired a general manager who gave them hope. An announcement confirming that he will be retained is expected Monday, when Regier and team president Ted Black meet with the media.
Apparently, all that rhetoric about keeping people accountable doesn’t apply to the general manager. And the Sabres wonder why people around the league think the organization is a joke. Players don’t need a $10 million dressing room any more than fans need cup holders for urinals.
They care about hockey. They want to win.
Pegula thought he would make Buffalo an attractive destination for players, but all the losing has turned it into a place many avoid. The perception that the Sabres are a rinky-dink operation isn’t going to change as long as Regier remains in charge. Pegula has refused to accept that concept despite being told when he bought the team.
The decision to keep Regier is almost certain to become yet another public relations disaster in a month full of them. The latest one came Friday, when the Sabres announced a 4 percent ticket price hike after missing the playoffs again. Somebody decided the news couldn’t wait a few weeks while fans cooled off.
Just so we are straight, the Sabres raised ticket prices after missing the playoffs in two consecutive years, after a league-wide lockout, even though the salary cap will decrease and revenues are expected to increase. And they broke the news before their final game of a miserable season on ... Fan Appreciation Night.
Meanwhile, there’s talk that the HarborCenter will cost about $40 million more than the original estimate, pushing costs to about $210 million or about $85 million more than the cost of First Niagara Center when it was built in 1996. Pegula really is a nice man. He’s absurdly wealthy, but even people in his camp wonder how it adds up.
Then again, who am I to say how a man should spend his money?
That’s actually a question Sabres fans need to ask themselves. They prove their loyalty year after year when shelling out good money for a lousy product. There must be a limit somewhere, a breaking point in which fans realize they’re enabling the very problems they’re trying to solve.
They came back after Drury and Briere. They came back after seeing the Sabres twice miss the playoffs two years in a row and four times in six years. They came back after being told the Sabres would be better and watched them get worse. Will they come back next year and invest in a team going nowhere?
Will they come back with Vanek and Miller gone and Regier still in charge?