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The date was July 3, 2003.
The Buffalo Sabres had recently placed the finishing touches on another disappointing season, one in which they would finish dead last in the Northeast for the second straight year.
It was the beginning of a summer pegged as a “rebuilding year,” and, much like this one, there wasn’t much to look forward to, coming off a franchise-worst 72-point season while overcoming bankruptcy and inching dangerously close to an impending relocation.
At that point, fans could only be thankful there would still be hockey played at the foot of Washington Street the following season — something that had been in serious doubt for some time.
Months earlier, three days before Tom Golisano’s purchase of the Sabres was announced, general manager Darcy Regier had already made one mid-season move that indicated the focus was on the future when he traded veteran center Chris Gratton to Phoenix for a smallish but promising 25-year-old Danny Briere at the trade deadline in March.
What came next would alter the course of the floundering franchise for the next decade.
On this particular day, July 3, Regier executed another bold transaction — perhaps his boldest in 17 years as GM — flipping a few spare parts to Calgary for Chris Drury.
Drury, at 26, had been the Calder Trophy winner in 1999 and already featured a Stanley Cup on his resume from his time in Colorado. Both players carried tremendous upside, and, while neither were acquisitions thought to immediately impact much at the time, it was a refreshing change to a pitiful roster.
The trades turned out to impact Buffalo hockey for the next decade, and maybe forever. Briere and Drury almost single handedly incited a hockey renaissance in Buffalo, rejuvenating a drained fan base with memories that will last a lifetime.
It’s easy to draw parallels to then and now. Maybe too easy. Of course, hockey’s existence in Buffalo isn’t in doubt like it was in 2003. But, for the first time since those early-2000 seasons, serious questions exist about the Sabres’ on-ice future.
Serious questions exist about Regier, too — the man who orchestrated those magical post-lockout rosters, but the same man who seems to have lost his touch when it comes to constructing a contender.
For as much flak as media and Sabres fans alike sling toward Regier (and deservedly so), the Drury and Briere deals were both premier displays of hockey acumen.
Each required a certain level of astuteness to identify the emerging talent and the creativity to acquire said talent at a discounted rate. They’re the type of transactions you see consistently from the league’s top GMs, but not from Regier any longer.
Regier had an opportunity this past year to carry out the latest example of a potentially franchise-altering trade, the kind that could inject new life into the again-bitter fan base much like the Drury and Briere deals once did. Then Bobby Ryan was traded from Anaheim to Ottawa in a three-player swap on Friday.
The Sabres, of course, had been connected to Ryan through reports and rumors since the 2012 trade deadline. The price, once said to be anything from Ryan Miller to Derek Roy and the like, had obviously changed since then.
Somewhere along the line, for reasons unknown to anyone outside that front office, it appears Regier fell out of touch with the negotiations, all the while allowing a division rival to swoop in and acquire the potential star power forward at a very reasonable price.
The Senators stole Ryan for a pair of top prospects — Stefan Noesen, a 2011 first-rounder, and Jakob Silfverberg, the 39th overall pick in 2009 — and their first rounder next year. Both Noesen and Silfverberg come with limited NHL experience and offer nice upside, but were an easy price to pay for Ryan's services over the next decade.
You would think the Sabres could have more than adequately accommodated those demands, especially if Regier had the sense to get a deal done where it involved one of the team’s first-rounders in this year’s draft. I'm not going to play matchmaker, but any of Tyler Ennis, Joel Armia, Johan Larsson, etc. would seem to be equal to or better trade chips than what Ottawa surrendered.
It’s the latest and probably most profound example of Regier’s decline, a swing and miss that will likely haunt Regier and the Sabres at least five times per season until this front office changes over.
Admittedly, there is likely more than meets the eye to this that I have not yet alluded to.
Maybe Regier was heavily involved, and the Ducks simply felt the Sens offered the better package. Maybe the Sabres were never as involved as we once thought. Maybe Ryan simply wasn’t in Regier’s rebuilding plans.
But why shouldn’t he have been?
At 26, just over 10 years after Regier's defining deals for Drury and Briere, Ryan could have been as much a part of a rebuild as any prospect in the Sabres’ system. Like to former co-captains, he offers proven talent with immediate results, not the wait-and-see baggage that comes with an 18-year-old second rounder.
Would the team have been good right away? Probably not. But, perhaps in the same mold of the Sabres from 2005-07, it certainly could have expedited the process.
I’m in a strange place right now. The Sabres’ draft class last week gives plenty of reason to be excited, but we’ve been here before. How can we really justify maintaining patience with Regier until these kids develop into what their potential holds, if — and it’s a big IF — that even happens.
Time and time again other teams prove it doesn’t take years to rebuild a franchise into a competitor while Regier seems to insist on moving at a snails pace. Maybe it doesn’t work out for Dallas and Tyler Seguin or Ottawa, which essentially traded Daniel Alfredsson for Ryan.
At least they’re taking the risks. After all, isn’t that what the league’s best GMs do? Waiting on Regier to rediscover himself has proven to be a frustrating process, to say the least.
Who knows how many more Chris Drurys and Danny Brieres we might miss out on along the way.