TAMPA, Fla. – The four players General Manager Tim Murray traded off the Buffalo Sabres’ roster Monday were all thrilled to land on likely playoff teams, taking a big jump from a club currently 30th in the NHL’s overall standing.
Torrey Mitchell was ecstatic to be going home to Montreal and to rejoin Brian Flynn, who was stunned to be dealt to the Canadiens an hour before practice began. Michal Neuvirth and Chris Stewart were equally happy with their new destinations and also relieved that weeks of speculation about their fates were over.
They also had some interesting parting shots for the Sabres’ clear goal of finishing last to produce the best odds in the NHL’s draft lottery.
The red-hot Neuvirth, in particular, was annoyed by the notion he had to be traded away so the team could start losing. Since Jhonas Enroth was traded to Dallas, Neuvirth has been sensational in net. He started the last eight games, going 3-3-2 with a 2.19 goals-against average and glossy .942 save percentage as the Sabres crept closer to Edmonton and Arizona and threatened to escape the cellar. But in the bizarre world of NHL Tankology, circa 2015, Neuvirth had to go.
“I mean, that’s crazy if you want to finish last to get a first draft pick,” Neuvirth said. “It just doesn’t seem right to me. You always want to win. And if you’re playing for last place, I don’t think it’s right.”
In Neuvirth and Enroth, of course, the Sabres have now traded away the two goalies who have earned all 43 of their points this season. With Stewart gone and Zemgus Girgensons out with a foot injury, the only forward in double figures in goals is Tyler Ennis with 15.
Stewart said he expects the players left behind will endure a difficult final month of the season.
“I do feel for them,” Stewart said. “Just for the fact everybody keeps talking about the “Tank Nation’ and all that and tanking for McDavid. I know those guys in the dressing room. They gave it their all every night. It’s something that they’re not thinking about coming to the rink every day.
“It’s frustrating hearing that every game. It’s kind of insulting to the guys in the dressing room who go out there, block shots, get their faces punched in and play the right way.”
After practice ended Monday afternoon around 12:30, most of the players retreated to a patio restaurant in the rear of their hotel, the Westin Harbour Island. They were watching TSN coverage of the trade proceedings on large televisions over the bar when Neuvirth’s sushi lunch was interrupted by Stewart and Andrej Meszaros nudging him to look up at the screen and see he had just been dealt.
“I was a little in shock but it’s a great opportunity to be in the playoffs and I’m excited,” Neuvirth said. “They’re a great team with really great players, skilled players. Jaro Halak is having an outstanding season. He’s a great goalie. I think we’re going to be a good tandem and hopefully we’re gonna go deep in the playoffs.”
Stewart’s trade moment was equally bizarre. At the 3 p.m. deadline, no deal had been announced until Stewart’s cell phone rang with a call from TSN. On live television, Stewart was told Minnesota was the destination.
“That was definitely a first,” said a laughing Stewart. “I’m familiar with that division so it should be an easy transition. I’m excited to get back to the West. It should be a physical style which will play into the kind of player I am. I’m looking forward to it.”
Flynn came to Amalie Arena expecting to practice and was quickly told he was heading to Montreal. That’s pretty heady stuff for a former undrafted collegian out of the University of Maine who signed with Buffalo as a free agent in 2011.
“Everything about the Buffalo organization was first class. But at the same time, I’m really excited about this opportunity I have,” Flynn said. “Go to a team that’s in first-place in the East. you always have a chance to win. They’re a good team. They play fast. They have good goaltending, good D, good group of forwards. I’m excited to do whatever they ask of me.”
Mitchell, who grew up outside of Montreal, had an exploding phone of messages from friends and family about the news of his homecoming.
“I’ll play more in my role, a third- or fourth-line role,” Mitchell said. “As a depth guy still responsible for killing penalties and being responsible defensively.
Mitchell was walking into the arena with Flynn when the latter was traded. They had spent many games together on the same line this season.
“It was sort of an awkward situation,” Mitchell said “I wished him luck and about three hours later he was sending me texts saying, ‘Are we going to be linemates?’ ”
All the players were slated to leave Tampa on Monday night. Flynn and Mitchell were headed to meet the Canadians in Los Angeles, as the Habs will play the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday and Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. Stewart should make his Wild debut in a home game Tuesday night against Ottawa while Neuvirth was heading to Dallas - and maybe a head-to-head with Enroth? - as the Islanders and Stars play Tuesday night.
Neuvirth is the only one who will see the Sabres again, as Buffalo plays the Islanders on April 4.
“I’ve said since day one I’ve been proud to be a Sabre. I wore it with pride,” Stewart said. “It’s been a first-class organization from the get-go, the way they treated me and my family. They welcomed me with open arms and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
And Stewart had one final message for Buffalo-area reporters to convey to Sabres fans before he left.
“I know days are dark right now,” he said. “It’s not going to last forever. They definitely have got some pieces and are going in the right direction.”