Night & Day – Sabres Bring Back the Joy

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Trade deadline day & July 1st are very much a Christmas day equivalent for hockey fans. It’s become especially fun with the advent of the Internet with its easy access to news and rumors. No matter the player’s talent level, when you see your team name flash across the screen on TSN your heart rate picks up. Off you go, checking the various sites to check the new guy’s stats. It’s a buzz of excitement.

Unless you’ve been a Sabres fan for the last seven years.

A quick point. I haven’t been a Darcy Regier hater. I’ve not piled on Tom Golisano or even Larry Quinn like some others. I thought building through the draft was and still is a sound approach to building a team. More than not, the Sabres decision makers were right about the negatives in acquiring rental players and overpayments to free agents. Now don’t get me wrong, clear mistakes were made by Darcy and crew (7-1-07), but overall I didn’t go around cursing their names for the downfall of the franchise. 

But with our white knight Terry Pegula showing the financial commitment to take on salary and allow Darcy to be an aggressive GM again, it makes you realize what we’ve been missing as fans. It’s as if the small-market explanations were drilled so deeply into our heads that we became disciples of that philosophy and scoffed at all other practices. We had forgotten what it was like to see our team become news makers (for the good things), to be given that feeling in the gut that special times were happening before our eyes.

You know what’s really important here? When Terry Pegula & Ted Black said the team would have no financial mandates on the hockey department and were committing to doing whatever they could to bring a cup to Buffalo, they weren’t lying. When they said the cuffs would be removed from Darcy, it wasn’t typical owner speak. Hockey Heaven may sound like a marketing ploy, but it’s not. It’s a changing of the mentality and vision of the team with tangible initiatives of treating players in a special way that other teams do not. It’s about truly caring for them. Examples such as Kim Pegula reaching out to the wife of Brad Boyes when we acquired him or Pegula, Kim and Ruff flying out to talk with Regehr. That’s different. That sets us apart. That my friends is Hockey Heaven. And that will draw players here.

Going into last week I still doubted, though. I wondered if Darcy had just been molded too hard into a conservative, risk-averted zombie. Would he be able to try new avenues that he previous spat upon? And had he gained a negative reputation around the league that teams & agents wouldn’t want to listen to him? Well, the last few days have blown those fears out of the water. He’s found his old sharp-thinking, deal-making self again. And apparently Pegula was right and Bucky was wrong (gasp!) when it comes to the league wide perception of him. Revelation – he isn’t a bumbling fool. Larry Quinn may very well be, but Darcy is not.

Now for my impressions on the big moves in the last week:

Trading for Robyn Regehr, Al Kotalik and a 2nd round pick (for Chris Butler & Paul Byron)

The thought of Tyler Myers being mentored by and being partnered with Robyn Regehr is a tantalizing possibility. While he rebounded in the second half last year, I don’t think Tyler ever had that comfort level with a partner that he had with Hank Tallinder in 09-10. Regehr is a his hero/favorite player, which is such a cool side story as well. The physical play & leadership brought by the new #24 are attributes severly lacking last season on the back line.  Reading many Flames’ fans reactions to the trade was definitely eye opening. According to them, Regehr was the team’s best defenseman in 10-11 along with being a top pairing player for several years. I so look forward to him blowing opposing forwards up along the walls as they finesse their way into our zone. And if you remember correctly, Myers became a physical beast in the Flyers playoff series. Putting him with Robyn will form a nasty, nasty pair that will make life hellish for the other team. So many gains when you think about what we gave up: a #5-6 defensman and a middle of the road prospect. The fact that we got a 2nd round pick back the other way puts this pretty close to highway robbery.

And then there’s Al Kotalik. I think Al is the very reason we received that pick. Calgary clearly wanted to dump him and if that’s the price we have to pay to land a top D man, so be it. I’m not convinced Kotalik will be here at the end of the summer. Darcy might be able to package him in a trade as well, especially to teams that need to get to the cap floor. Hell, Regier managed to get a 7th round pick for Nathan Paetsch a few years back. I know the salary might be a deterrent to teams accepting any swap for Al, but worst case scenario we bury him in Rochester.

Trading for Christian Erhoff’s rights and then signing him to a 10 year, 40 millon dollar contract.

This one was the true signal to me that the Golisano days are over. Not only did Darcy get extremely aggressive and give up an asset in a risky move to sign Erhoff. But he then followed it up with a front loaded contract that provided “creative” cap relief. If it wasn’t clear that the previous regime was not only cuffing Darcy but keeping him hidden in a closet, it was this grand move. It was a statement – the Buffalo Sabres are for real and will compete with all the big market teams. And the fact that Christian chose the Sabres when he could have easily listened to all offers on the open market is HUGE. It proves the Hockey Heaven that I described above is working. Former players like Mike Grier and Rhett Warrener are spreading the word about how awesome it is to play hockey here. Going with the heaven theme, the players are treated like gods in this city. It’s an ego boost. As Darcy mentioned in the presser today, the perceptions about this being a crappy place to live and play are being decimated (my word). Ted Black’s goal to make this the destination for free agents is coming true. Another promise fulfilled.

Ehrhoff the player? We’ve been searching for his type of D-man since Brian Campbell left. And from what I’ve heard and read, he’s not a liability in his own zone like Soupy was. He can be pushed around on occasion, but you can mix him with a physical defenseman like Mike Weber to balance that part out. And I’m thrilled in a big way for our power play. Our PP has been god awful the last few years, and it desperately needs a QB at the point. Now we have him. As much as I came to appreciate Jason Pominville’s imporance to the team when he got injured last year, early with his confussion and with the playoff laceration, especially on the short handed unit, he is a disaster as point man on the power play. Can’t wait to see Ehrhoff controlling the puck back there and allowing Thomas Vanek to set up shop in front of the net. It should be solid and provide actual advantages for us. And a good power play can be a difference in several wins for the season.

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I like that Darcy started with defense for the re-tooling. We were actually able to score goals last year; where we suffered was on defense. Philly’s forwards made us look silly in the D zone come playoff time, especially in game 7. A more stout, experienced, skilled defense is going to make a major difference this season. That being said, I’m ready for Darcy to address the offense now. We desperately need a playmaking center. And now with Ehrhoff’s cap friendly salary, we can make a run at Brad Richards tomorrow. He’s exactly what we need – A skilled skater with great vision and proven track record (Conn Smythe winner in 03-04). He would make Vanek a 50 goal scorer, I have no doubt. Now with free agency, anything can happen. Players will make their choices based on a lot of factors. But the Sabres for the 1st time in a long time will be right in the mix. And with these two latest additions, maybe be at the top of his list.

12 noon can’t come soon enough.

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