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Good Vanek deal won’t cover Regier’s mistakes

Every now and again, but not nearly often enough, Darcy Regier makes a trade that reminds you he’s capable of taking another general manager to the cleaners. After so many net losses over the years, it was refreshing to see him stumble into a net gain Sunday when he shipped Thomas Vanek to Long Island.

The swap in which Regier acquired winger Matt Moulson, a first-round pick and a second-rounder looked like a lopsided deal for the Sabres. Moulson is a 30-goal scorer, a proven veteran and an asset. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, but he can be flipped again before the NHL trade deadline.

We’ll see how it all shakes out, but Regier has numerous options in the months ahead. He could package Moulson with Ryan Miller to a contender looking for a push. He could use draft picks as sweeteners. Vanek eventually could add up to three picks or more, a terrific haul for a winger who was so set on leaving he reportedly turned down a contract that would have made him the league’s highest-paid player.

Regier deserves credit for the trade.

It may seem like I never have anything positive to say about Regier, but that’s not true. His remarkable 17-year run hasn’t been all bad. He’s made several good deals over the years, but let’s not get carried away. He did his job Sunday, for a change, but it doesn’t undo all the damage he’s caused. Overall, he hasn’t been good enough.

He’s not much different from players he acquired. Tim Connolly wasn’t all bad, either. Neither was Taylor Pyatt nor Chris Gratton nor Jochen Hecht nor the collection of other underachievers who rolled through town. None was completely horrible. They just weren’t good enough by any respectable standard.

Every general manager makes a few good decisions. Marv Levy failed as a GM, for example, but he signed Fred Jackson. Garth Snow will never be confused with Al Arbour, but he improved the Islanders at various times. Then again, it couldn’t get much worse for a team that for years looked like it belonged in the AHL.

And that’s where the Sabres stand today.

Regier and Snow, with the trade, effectively stirred the masses in their respective markets and justified their existence to clueless owners. Terry Pegula and Charles Wang are billionaires who know business and like to think they know hockey. Neither knows the business of hockey, which is why their teams have struggled.

The Islanders are excited to have a great talent in Vanek, who will play with an elite playmaking center for the first time in his career. We’ll see how many goals he scores while riding the wing with John Tavares compared to how many Moulson scores in Buffalo while playing alongside, who, Steve Ott?

It’s not a matter of whether Regier made a good move Sunday. In fact, he did when considering the variables. He was wise to make the trade early in the season, when Vanek had more value than he would have had as a rental at the trade deadline. The winger’s ability gave Regier more leverage over Snow.

The bigger question is whether Regier is capable of turning the Sabres into a Stanley Cup winner. He’s not. The proof is in his record. He inherited a good team with a great goaltender built by former GM John Muckler. He admittedly fell into two great teams when the rules changed after the 2004-05 lockout.

Look what has happened since.

The Sabres didn’t crumble under a tight budget, a bogus notion that Pegula swallowed whole when he assumed control. They fell apart because of mismanagement. Regier watched good, competitive players leave with little or nothing coming back while he kept pretty but pink forwards such as Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov.

Regier convinced Pegula that the best way to rebuild was through the draft, but that was only true if he remained general manager. Why? Because prospective free agents aren’t interested in playing in Buffalo so long as he’s running the show. They have less interest in playing under Ron Rolston.

Let’s not forget that it was Pegula’s money more than anything else that convinced Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino to sign with Buffalo. Ehrhoff was fine for a while, but he looks uninterested this year. Leino has either been injured or ineffective. Robyn Regehr couldn’t get out of Buffalo fast enough.

Regier’s first trade with an open checkbook: Brad Boyes. Boyes and his $4 million salary arrived as signs of change and left as a reminder that everything was basically the same. The Sabres were still an organization that didn’t understand the value of players, particularly their own, regardless of cost.

This whole idea that the Sabres needed to rebuild didn’t begin with the Paul Gaustad trade. That was a slice of revised history provided by Regier. It’s also a source of amusement to many within the organization. It began when Regier realized his recruiting problem was one Pegula couldn’t solve, especially after Lindy Ruff was fired.

Top players know big money will be there no matter where they play. They’re looking to win, which is one reason the Sabres had such a quiet summer. They traded for Henrik Tallinder, who is making $3.5 million. Regier didn’t believe the defenseman was worth $3.25 million four years ago. Did he somehow improve at age 34?

Look, I can do this all day, every day, based on a mountain of evidence against Regier that was established before Pegula arrived, after Pegula arrived, up, down and sideways.

Vanek had no interest in coming back because he lost faith in the organization. Ryan Miller must be thinking along the same lines. Jason Pominville could see as much before he was traded. He’s happy in Minnesota, which is why he signed a contract extension. These guys know the history.

So do many others across the NHL.

With all the no-trade and restricted-trade clauses in contracts nowadays, it would be interesting to see how many players have Buffalo on their “anywhere but there” list. The Sabres had a reputation for treating players poorly when they had a good team, so you can imagine how they’re being perceived these days.

And that’s why they’re stockpiling draft picks. It’s hardly a stroke of genius. Regier is incapable of attracting good players, so he’s forcing them here through the draft. Is this where I remind you that he has failed to pick a player who finished higher than 15th in scoring? He can’t be trusted to get it right.

But selling that approach buys him time while he continues to cast his spell over ownership. The Sabres aren’t going to enjoy any real success until Pegula wakes up and realizes he’s been snowed. Another good player walked out the door Sunday, and more will follow. It’s been the Sabres’ biggest problem for years.

We’ll, it’s their second-biggest problem.

You know the first.


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