On The 2012 Deadline Day

What we thought we got on Pegula Day 2011 was the long-awaited liberation of a once-hindered duo, nearly brothers who had been around — and lost — forever, stuck drifting in this strange journey toward what felt like infinite mediocrity. “The purpose is to win a Stanley Cup,” Pegula said, with that awkward inflection, like Stanley was a guy’s first name and Cup his last. There it was: all our hopes and dreams realized at once. Darcy Regier, once silenced and shackled,    chained to a pike to be circled by pitchfork and flame. Lindy Ruff, jovial and boundless, making chicken salad out of chicken droppings, but increasingly tired, increasingly cynical, increasingly out of fresh ideas.

One day and one man was going to take an eraser to that proverbial chalk board and give Regier and Ruff the one thing they had been so perennially incapable of utilizing through some or most of the years: Assets. Lots and lots of assets.

Money was going to solve everything. Renovate the arena, hop on fancy jets to far-off lands to woo well-regarded defensemen into coming aboard. It was going to make players want to stay here and more importantly make players want to come here. Hockey Heaven, they’d eventually call it. There it was. Print the shirts, register the trademarks. Cover the town in blue and gold. Make us happy, Terry Pegula. Make us relevant. 

And unlike the brief cannon of momentum after the lockout years, these prospects and hopes seemed far more rooted in permanency. This was, after all, not based on the cunning gambles of a few penny-pinchers, this was based on the direct and boisterous orders of a modern day gas tycoon who barked one lofty, but refreshingly unique mandate: Darcy and Lindy were to do whatever was necessary to obtain the presence of Mr. Stanley Q. Cup, wherever he may be.

But then the talking stops and even the action stops and the games begin. Then, reality sets in. In the off-season the team acquired Robyn Regehr, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino via trade and free agency. All three of the moves were nearly universally lauded with Leino’s being the most suspect. And as we all know, things went okay followed by going very poorly. From mid December until late January, the Sabres were not just bad, they were historically bad , playing some of the worst statistical hockey in franchise history. It seemed then, as it seems now, that Darcy had no choice but to do something, if for no other reason than dire necessity. Here he was: all these years treading water in peril against his ownership, now likely forced to make one last ditch effort at a fix — the last gasp of an exhausted swimmer desperately stroking for shore, miles off the nearest coast since he’d long previous been left to die there. 

It was a harsh lesson for a fan base to learn about what exactly money means in the grand scheme of this fun little hobby of ours. You can fix a lot of things in sports with money — you can knock the rust off the fenders and get new upholstery — but when push comes to shove, when you really kick the tires, you still need someone who is considered a good mechanic running the show.

And by the by, Darcy Regier was no longer considered a good mechanic. We felt hoodwinked, and change never felt more reasonable. Moreover, the trade deadline never seemed so depressing an upcoming spectacle, what with the organizational vote of confidence that, even if the Sabres were to lose every game the rest of the year, Regier and Ruff would be going no where this season.

“Silly Rabbits,” said the organization, “Trix are for kids.”

Waterlogged and without his wrench and buried under various other overwrought puns and metaphors, Regier marched head first into a deadline that was somewhat unique in the circumstances of the team. After all, during the fateful Golisano years, it was never really possible to truly “sell and rebuild”, because, for income purposes, the notion that the team was always going to be competitive enough to make a run at the playoffs was imperative. It was the first time in a long time that the actual prospect of bottoming out as opposed to just grabbing on to 8th and hoping for the best was possible.

To be fair, Paul Gaustad was never really supposed to receive this much attention as an NHL talent. A big-bodied physical forward but with stone hands and who often appeared as though he was skating through mud, the “Goose”, as he became known rather quickly, was never supposed to be much more than a middling fringe player with the benefit of being the occasional tough guy. In 07-08, desperate for more hidden talent after the off-season from hell, Gaustad’s role in the organization increased and the team found out something about him that they didn’t really know previously: he can play a little bit, too. 

No one was ever going to write magazine articles about Paul Gaustad and he wasn’t likely headed toward winning any awards, but he was something the Sabres liked and needed: he delivered consistent, though low point total seasons, usually gave you a decent effort and played two ways. 

And beyond just the brass tax, there was the inescapable feeling that Paul Gaustad could possibly become captain material. It was difficult to really expect that out of him — after all he was never going to play top line minutes — but he had everything else that you’d want out of a captain. His size and physicality, though often questioned, were relied upon. He was an American, involved himself in the community and looked and felt like the type of guy you imagine has the C on their sweater if you close their eyes.

But like Don Draper from Mad Men, square-jawed and picturesque, there had always been something missing in his character that went beyond the lack of scoring ability. It was hard to fancy him a leader when you *really* knew what was going on. There had always been something about Paul Gaustad that seemed like he was second guessing himself, never quite fitting squarely into the role he was meant to play. It was why fans and media greeted his receiving of a permanent (though half-year) “A” on his sweater this past off-season with trepidation. Unlike Don Draper, there remains question as to whether or not Gaustad can put the shortcomings aside to rise to the moment.

When Milan Lucic clubbed and allegedly concussed a defenseless Ryan Miller this past fall, Paul Gaustad was on the ice but apparently unable to muster the fortitude to challenge Boston’s heat-seeking cruise missile for his transgressions. A handful of days later and Goose answered the bell in a return match at the F’N Center, took his drubbing like a man and skated off early in the contest, but whatever small love affair with the idea that Gaustad was going to police the ice for the Sabres had already diminished to nothing.

Fast forward to Ryan Miller’s return game against, interestingly enough, the Nashville Predators, and a similarly aggressive play by Jordin Tootoo got Goose’s dander up to the point where there was no question:  he knew exactly what his role was to be in those situations. He seemed, in that moment, to clarify the many questions that had long been asked about him: he was a follower, in fact, not a leader, and though he seemed to possess the utilities to get the job done, he lacked the foresight to know when it was to be done. He became the next in a long line of symbols of the fast-dying Golisano era: good, but not good enough —  the hockey equivalent of content middle management — conscious but always in need of direction.

Clear as that role may have become, however, it was increasingly apparent that it was time for a change of scenery. Rumors first mentioned by Brad May and corroborated by what Buffalo Wins had heard behind-the-scenes put Gaustad at requesting a significant raise over a long term contract, both weary bones of contention considering the team’s desire to change its core. By deadline day, it was a virtual certainty that he was to be dealt in a seller’s market where his value would likely never be higher.

When 3:00 PM EST rolled around yesterday and Regier had been able to acquire a late 1st rounder for Gaustad and a 4th, it was exactly the sort of move you’d expect Darcy to make: an absolute fleecing with a team from the proverbial left field of the buyer’s market. Gaustad, with no doubt, is not worth a 1st round draft pick in this or any year. His ceiling as a 3rd line center who can play limited 5-on-5 minutes and contributes very little offense should be a liability for any team interested in its future. But as we’ve learned time and again, many teams are interested in mortgaging that future for the possibility of a Stanley Cup this year.

Does Gaustad make Nashville better? Probably so, but not drastically so, and thus the winner would have to be considered Darcy and the Sabres, who now have four picks in the first two rounds with the possibility to leverage those into a critical player in the off-season. 

As for Gaustad, he will likely be offered a contract in the off-season that the Sabres would not be able nor willing to match. 

If it had ended there, I can’t imagine that the increasingly impatient Sabres nation would have greeted Darcy Regier with the ticker tape and sweeping forgiveness they met him with just fifteen minutes later.

Zack Kassian has been a curious conflagration of the best and worst symptoms from Buffalo sports fans from the moment he was drafted. Around the time of the lockout, the Sabres gamble on the long-term veracity of the new NHL rules meant that Darcy Regier was able to build his team with Moneyball-esque efficiency. He was able to get small, high motor, skilled finesse players at reasonable costs. It was going to be up to the league to play catch up. But as things are in the NHL, their view of “pure hockey” was and remains in a constant state of flux. By 2009, it was readily apparent that the league was reverting back to a clutch-and-grab style of physical hockey that dominated the late 90s. 

Don’t mistake that for indignation: Derian Hatcher wasn’t stepping onto the ice to tackle forecheckers into submission again, but the game had taken a visible (and statistical) step back from its 2005 offensive form, which caused the Sabres to lose their roulette bet on the re-shaping of the game. Meanwhile, other teams, particularly the Rangers, Penguins and Bruins were building their teams around the philosophy that hockey would eventually regress to the mean. They had all begun to acquire large bodied grizzly bears; powerful men with a tendency to deliver punishing checks and garbage goals. They didn’t necessarily need to be fighters, the Red Wings, after all, had won cups with big bodies who just got in the way or were more comfortable in gnarly situations than anyone else, but they did need to be physical. 

And so Kassian became the first foray into Regier’s most renewed attempt to catch-up to the NHL masses. A large, angrily dispossessed bulldog with a bad habit for detaching people from their senses on the ice, Zack Kassian brought exactly the kind of nasty that the Sabres felt they would need to counteract the Milan Lucic types. Kassian was neve expected to blossom into something more than a 20 goal, 30 assist player, but that was a fine contribution from a player who could eat lots of minutes with a furious presence. 

As Kassian’s development progressed, he was met with no shortage of fumbles and missteps. He immediately began to develop an already-brewing reputation in the organization for being difficult to handle, not aided any by his tendency to get in trouble off the ice with a few too many frat-like mess-ups. But worse over, his development as a prospect was hindered by a peculiar unwillingness to play physically in the sport’s lower leagues. Over 27 games in the NHL, Kassian had a brief but exciting offensive output followed by virtual invisibility. He got into — and won — two fights in those games, but seemed to lack the physical drive to win battles, at least at the level fans had come to anticipate. 

Hilariously and naturally (and don’t think I don’t take some enjoyment in writing this), the local media overreached egregiously in its criticisms of Kassian, going so far as to accuse him of out-and-out cowardice. That joyfully reliable overstep by the media plummeted consensus expectations of Kassian and so when he came back up for another NHL pit-stop, the ‘reasonable’ point of view was just hoping that he exhibited any kind of pulse at all. Of course the real expectations should have rested somewhere in between. What Kassian was really needed for was to be a veritable game changer at the NHL level, not with stick and puck but with his body. It wasn’t that he needed to be putting people on stretcher’s every night, but that he made the opposition take that extra half-second to consider the repercussions. Like Lucic, he was the guy who’d make you flinch when he said, “boo”.

Although it hasn’t quite seemed that way yet, there is still every bit the possibility that Kassian turns into that player, and every bit the possibility that the Sabres miss him. But the pressing need for the Sabres, a franchise now hell bent on finding the right recipe for a championship, was top line scoring, particularly down the middle. And that was one thing Kassian was never going to bring to the table consistently.

Enter Cody Hodgson. A high first-rounder from the Tyler Myers draft class, drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, Hodgson had the benefit of a more traditional development than Kassian, with the Canucks depth to thank for it. A slick-wristed, thick-bodied-though-not-particularly-tall Center, Hodgson presented an opportunity for the Sabres to acquire what they’ve needed for at least two, and likely more years: a potential first line scoring cog up the middle. Though not there yet, Hodgson is on pace for a healthy rookie campaign with 33 points (16 goals) this year and has been included in conversations for the Calder trophy. 

Although Hodgson is not yet the first line center the Sabres are obviously rooting for him to become, he is already the fourth leading goal scorer on the team* and will jump fine into the Bottom 6 for the remainder of the season as he acclimates himself to the vaunted and oft-discussed “Lindy system”. Ultimately, the goal would seem to be to have Hodgson and Adam work as a powerful young 1-2 Center combination, though that is entirely contingent upon Ruff’s discretion with Adam as a Center, who only spent brief spurts there in his NHL stay this season. 

(* Just remember, Raffi Torres came here as a leading scorer, too.)

The young former Canuck forward is not without faults and baggage of his own, though. Hodgson went through a period of highly chronicled disagreements with the Canucks organization regarding his playing level and roster spot, and was accused of “making excuses” during a period in 2009 in which he was limited to 13 OHL games as result of a back injury that forced him to see three different doctors. Most seem to believe his attitude has adjusted, though it’s now fairly obvious that he did request a trade out of Vancouver to get more playing time. What’s more, Hodgson is not at all a player of the physical mold, and if he does not ascend to the 60-70 point ceiling that are his expectations, is the type of player who would roundly frustrate Sabres fans for his lack of effort on the back check and along the boards.

His face-off acumen also is a bit suspect, as he is only winning at a 43% ratio this year, which will mean that, at least in the short term, the Sabres can expect to lose a few more draws.

There is, in other words, a potential here for Buffalo to have struck it rich with two very young, very talented Center prospects about to be ready for the bright lights, or the potential for Hodgson to turn into another Tim Connolly, a player with buckets of talent but an ever present health risk and no physical presence or drive of which to speak.

So what we have, despite many proclamations yesterday that Darcy had bought himself some more rope, you know, at least enough with which to hang himself, is a waiting game. If, in three years, Kassian has developed into the mid-tier scoring, physical presence he was drafted to be and Hodgson has new health issues flare up, or attitude issues return, or never quite makes it past the 50 point mark, it was another Darcy gamble that went wrong.

The problem with looking back on deals, of course, is that for the most part since Pegula has came along we’d all make most or all of the deals that Regier has made (Leino perhaps being the exception). But for a GM in an organization that wants to win now or soon, there is just too much gambling going on; too much of the bankroll at risk in hopefuls and not enough in sure things. Just as Regier gambled that Boyes would be worth a 2nd and regain some of his previous Top 6 form, just as he gambled that Regehr was still the dominant physical presence on the back end he was 8 years younger, just as Regier gambled that Ville Leino could be a meaningful center or at least productive forward at an exorbitant cost, he is gambling now, this time with his draft pick’s potential against that of another team’s.

There is no doubt in my mind, looking at the rest of the league, that Darcy Regier and the Buffalo Sabres were definitely the big winners of trade deadline day 2012. They made two of the more significant moves, and perhaps got the return with the best long term outlook. My criticism with Regier, however, extends beyond just that to the idea that his patience has become an absolute liability. There seemed to be no sense of urgency in December and January when the organization was struggling for air, and that inaction may have very well cost the Sabres the playoffs this season.

To Regier’s defense, no one in the NHL really made  moves around that time, which is somewhat atypical, but sooner-or-later Regier has to be the one setting the early market, and sooner-or-later you lose trust in him as the only guy in the room. We’re rapidly approaching if not already passing that point in time. 

10 months ago, I wrote that Drew Stafford’s signing would be the first of a few significant indicators on whether or not Regier really was worth keeping around. Weary to throw out the baby with the bathwater, I think we were all waiting with baited breath on if the fresh, new and once-again brilliant Regier would come to light now unshackled from Golisano’s reign. About this so far, we’ve learned little, and learned nothing yesterday. The two deadline deals cleared about $1.5 million in immediate cap space and both could have been done during the Golisano years. Regehr and Ehrhoff look like promising acquisitions, but still remain in the incomplete column until further notice. What we know of Regier is that he is, in fact, more vocal in the game now, but still have no idea if he is just barking into the dark, hoping for a response.

So where do we go from here? Brace yourselves, but probably on the same wacky 12-month adventure we just took to give Regier and the team another assessment. Rome, of course, was not built in a day or anything, and Rome was also the conquering civilization of an entire era of humankind and we’re just looking for a hockey championship, so I have somewhat refined expectations for Darcy’s timetable. If, help us, it turns out that this has all just become yet another chapter in a long and elaborate 14-year ruse by the Darcy and Lindy duo, I’m ready to check-out, my finger firmly planted on the eject button for their proverbial GM and Coach’s seats in this organization.

The thing is: This is a start, and a good one. Hodgson was the right call, and acquiring a real playing chip for Gaustad was a job well done. But the job is not nearly complete, and the final verdict on what can be said about Darcy will probably now have to wait until the 2012 holiday season, when he has had, yet again, just one more season to craft the team in his image.

It is a peculiar note, but, think about it: With Hodgson yesterday and now the accumulation of 4 early-round draft picks, Darcy Regier has taken one large step toward defining exactly the type of team the Sabres will be up front and in their Top 6 for many seasons to come. Interesting then, that he may not be around for the time in which the verdict on yesterday’s moves is finally delivered.

And that, in the end, is the quiet nature of Darcy’s genius, and his comic book like ability to escape expulsion. A verdict can’t be passed on these guys until these moves are basically distant memories. But this time, it feels as though there are no more narrow escapes, no more pithy excuses. 

It’s win now, Darcy. Win in 2012-2013 or leave, and don’t you ever come back.

Matthew Stewart is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Torch, debuting on March 1st. You can contact him on twitter @matthew1stewart