BUFFALO, N.Y. – These aren't sunny days for the Buffalo Sabres.
They're off to an NHL-worst 2-10-1 start, have two players currently suspended and Sunday night traded star scorer Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders. But longtime general manager Darcy Regier doesn't want to consider himself under pressure, despite his current situation.
“I don't do well with that word,” Regier said. “I think there's a better word. Is it a bigger challenge? Yeah. I'd substitute the word challenge for pressure.”
As far as challenges go, it's a monumental one. Regier is in the midst of trying to rebuild a roster around a young core without losing the support of fans, ownership and his veteran players.
Trading Vanek was another step in that process, which could include shipping out franchise goaltender Ryan Miller and others before the March trade deadline. It's up to Regier get the best return out of such moves.
“If you're under so much pressure, it's paralysing, so you can't operate that way,” he said. “You have to operate as though it's a challenge and it's something that you have to get done as a part of our team that's working on this. And you have to find the enjoyment in doing your work.”
It's not enjoyable for Regier or any man in his position to hear home fans chanting for him to be fired. But with Buffalo in the Atlantic Division basement after failing to qualify for the playoffs the past two years, that frustrated sentiment is certainly expected.
Lindy Ruff, who coached the Sabres for 14 full seasons before being fired in the middle of 2013, gets it.
“I understand where they're at,” said Ruff, whose Dallas Stars were in Buffalo to face the Sabres on Monday night. “It's tough to see where the team is at in the standings, but I watch how these players play and how some of the young players play and I think there's a lot of promise there.”
It's a long rebuild, and one Vanek told reporters in Uniondale, N.Y., that he didn't really want to be a part of. Regier knew Vanek would not re-sign, so he took a major step toward the future by acquiring winger Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in 2014 and a second-rounder in 2015 from the Islanders.
“I don't want to show any lack of respect to our fans, but internally it's just doing the work and focusing on what our plan is and trying to execute it as well and as soon as possible,” he said. “I don't love where we are. I love what we're doing and I believe in the direction we're going in.”
That plan includes stockpiling draft picks. The Sabres have 17 first- or second-round picks from 2012 through 2015, the most in their history, something that is by design.
Buffalo's two first-round picks from 2012, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, and 2013, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, are all getting NHL experience right now. Thanks to the trades of Vanek to the Islanders, Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild and Robyn Regehr to the Los Angeles Kings, the Sabres have two first-round picks and three second-rounders in June's draft, and one first and three thirds in 2015.
“With where our hockey club is the first and second-round picks are important,” Regier said. “Whether we use the picks to select players at the draft or whether we use them to continue to improve the hockey club as we go forward through this season is yet to be determined.”
It's also yet to be determined how many early picks the Sabres will have by the time they're done dealing. Like Vanek, Moulson is a pending unrestricted free agent, so it's very realistic to think he goes to a contender by the deadline in exchange for more selections and/or prospects.
Moulson isn't worrying about that right now, preferring a “day-to-day” approach.
“Being from Mississauga I'm well-acquainted with Buffalo. I used to love coming to Bills games,” he said. “It's a great city and who knows, it could be for a long time. We'll see what they have in store.”
Of course the biggest question surrounding the Sabres' roster has to do with Miller, the 33-year-old goalie who has been a franchise cornerstone since he became the starter in 2005-06. Miller is in the final season of a US$31.25-million, five-year deal and figures to generate significant interest in the trade market.
“I think any time a player plays better, you get more and when he plays poor, you get less,” Regier said. “I think that will happen. I think it's obviously good for our organization, it's great for Ryan and it means a lot.”
Miller has a no-trade clause that allows him to block a move to eight teams. Asked if he had received any inquiries about Miller, Regier said: “I probably talk to a third of the league of my counterparts on a weekly basis. You end up talking about a lot of things.”
Impending free-agents Steve Ott, Cody McCormick and Henrik Tallinder could be talked about, too. What the Vanek trade showed is that the Sabres are open for business, and players know it.
“Everybody's job is kind of up in the air right now,” said Ott, who became the full-time captain after the trade. “I don't think anybody has a free pass in trying to rebuild and I guess you could say restructure the whole organization and that's something right now we can only control what you can control as a player, and that's something I'm planning on continuing to preach to the team.”
Regier said it's “too early” to know what value veterans could have in the coming months.
“Teams, I think they're dealing with a very heavy October schedule, which is a little bit unusual that we're getting because of the Olympics,” he said. “There are quite a few injuries around the league, so in some cases they're waiting for players to get back, get healthy and get back before they start to assess what their needs are. But I would also say that there's probably more conversations now than there have been in the past.”
Regier's focus is on getting younger and relying on his scouting staff to find the next-generation versions of Vanek, Pominville, Regehr and others. It's very different from the task of building and retooling a playoff team.
“It's a process that you work through,” Regier said. “And it is exciting when you can get young players and you can see them grow. The hard part is when you don't win games while they're growing, and it makes it difficult. But the nature of this business is short-term pressures and it's a long-term plan that is going to get it done.”