BUFFALO, N.Y. – Goalie Ryan Miller and play-making forward Jason Pominville won’t be going anywhere any time soon if the Buffalo Sabres have their way.
Identifying the two players as key parts of Buffalo’s young foundation, Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn said Sunday that securing both to long-term contracts are among the top off-season priorities for a team that, in one year, went from winning the Presidents’ Trophy to missing the playoffs altogether.
“It’s not a decision that we’re going to make, we’ve already made it,” Quinn told The Associated Press a day before the Sabres are scheduled to clean out their lockers. “We clearly want those guys to be part of the long-term success here.”
Quinn said negotiations have yet to begin with either player, both of whom have one year left on their contracts.
What’s significant is that Quinn’s comments signal a major philosophical switch for an organization that was criticized for being too slow in its approach to negotiate long-term deals with former co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, before losing both to free agency last summer.
Drury and Briere’s departures are considered the key reasons behind the Sabres’ sudden downfall this year, the team eliminated from playoff contention with a 3-1 loss at Montreal Thursday.
In finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference standings, Buffalo (39-31-12) became only the third team since NHL expansion in 1967-68 to miss the playoffs a year after winning the regular-season title. The New York Rangers did that in 1993, as did Montreal in 1970.
Quinn described himself as “disappointed but not discouraged” over the Sabres’ downfall, while stressing this was not a time to overreact.
“Definitely not a time to panic,” Quinn said. “You can’t overreact because you didn’t make the playoffs. You’ve got to be unhappy with it, but this is a team that’s going places. And if your question is, ‘Will we do the things we have to do to help them?’ Yes, we will.”
The Sabres endured an up-and-down season, lacking the chemistry and identity that helped them win an NHL-best 105 games over the previous two years, when they were both times eliminated in the East final. Buffalo, this year, was particularly undone by a mid-season slump in which it went 1-7-5.
Miller is coming off an inconsistent year, and one in which he had difficulty handling the gruelling load of appearing in a franchise-record 76 games in only his third full NHL season.
Miller finished with a respectable 36-27-10 record, four wins short of matching the franchise mark he set last year, and a 2.64 goals-against average, eight points lower than his career average. But he faltered, complaining of fatigue, during a 34-game string of appearances in which he went 18-10-5 and allowed 91 goals over the past three months.
A one-time all-star selection, he’s scheduled to make US$3.5 million next season and eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2009.
Pominville emerged as a team leader and, along with Derek Roy, was one of the Sabres’ most consistent players. He finished with a career-high 80 points (27 goals, 53 assists) to finish second on the team in scoring.
Pominville is due to make $1.375 million next year, but not eligible to become an unrestricted free agent until 2010.
Quinn also included rugged forward Paul Gaustad in the team’s list of off-season priorities. Gaustad completed a two-year deal, but is only eligible to become a restricted free agent this summer.
“You can’t be comfortable with not making the playoffs,” Quinn said. “But I don’t think that it’s any question that we’ve got a terrific core of young players – and I would argue, some of the best in the league.”
Quinn was referring to the team’s top-three scorers, Roy, Pominville and Thomas Vanek, who are all 26 or younger.