For the Buffalo Sabres, the time is now.
The team is tied for third place in the NHL's Eastern Conference and leads the Northeast Division. The problem is, "now" won't begin until at least next year due to woeful mismanagement.
After watching with the rest of the world as goaltender Ryan Miller carried the United States Olympic hockey team to the gold medal game, Sabres general manager Darcy Regier certainly recognized Buffalo's own golden opportunity. Unfortunately, Regier has handcuffed himself with deplorable long-term contracts to currently underachieving stars, leaving little financial wiggle room to build a legitimate contender.
Fans heard Regier's familiar chorus before last Wednesday's trade deadline. "Our focus has really been on seeing if we can do something for a longer term, beyond just this stretch run, but including next season," he said in an interview with the Buffalo News. He continued, "[The trade deadline] is one opportunity when ideally you'd like to improve yourself, but I think the great opportunity is during the offseason and the summer. There's going to be more free agents at that time."
Yes, Mr. Regier. There will be more free agents during the free agent signing period this summer than there will be during the season. One downside to this summer's free agent signing period is that it occurs after the completion of the 2009-10 NHL season, which you just transparently bailed on.
One could argue that Regier's deadline trade for Columbus Blue Jackets forward Raffi Torres was an effort to improve the team for this season. I argue that it was pathetic; Torres has just 33 points this season, trailing rookie defenseman Tyler Myers (36 points) for sixth-best on the Sabres.
The other Eastern Conference contenders weren't nearly as meek in their improvements: the Pittsburgh Penguins added forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has 20 goals and 23 assists this season. The New Jersey Devils traded for one of the most talented goal-scorers in the league, left wing Ilya Kovalchuk. The addition of Torres doesn't come close to matching the acquisitions of other top teams.
Perhaps Regier's biggest flaw is his own hubris. In recent years, he doled out lucrative contracts to homegrown products Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and, yes, Ryan Miller, while purging outsiders (and team captains) Chris Drury, Danny Briere and Brian Campbell.
Miller has proven to be the only player worthy of the lofty salary thus far. Vanek "earns" $6.4 million this season and has produced a measly 42 points. By comparison, Calgary Flames right winger Jarome Iginla rightly earns $7 million for his 64-point output.
How can the Sabres be fixed? As self-proclaimed armchair NHL general manager of The Lamron, I think I've uncovered the formula of a championship-caliber team.
First of all, Buffalo needs an enforcer. The Sabres are woefully undersized with the exception of the 6-foot-8 Myers, and the lanky rookie is anything but a fighter. If the Sabres are to keep Miller healthy for the next several years, they need an enforcer to stand up for the goaltender when opposing teams take runs at him.
Second, Buffalo needs a marquee offensive talent. Look at the last five Stanley Cup champions: The 2003-04 Lightning had three players in the top 10 in points. The 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes were led by Eric Staal's 100 points. The 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks got 48 goals and 94 points from Teemu Selanne. Pavel Datsyuk piled up 97 points for the 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings. Last year, the Penguins had two players (Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby) with over 100 points in the regular season.
The Sabres don't have a single offensive game-breaker on their team. It remains to be seen whether Vanek can regain his 40-goal form of years past, but Regier shouldn't waste time waiting for him to come around. A top talent should be signed in free agency or traded for before next season if Regier is earnest in his ambition to build a Cup-winning team.
The final piece of the puzzle that must be filled before hoisting the Cup is a legitimate backup goaltender. Current backup Patrick Lalime allows over one goal more per game than Miller, forcing head coach Lindy Ruff to use him sparingly. With a quality backup, Miller can be spelled more often, leaving him well-rested for the inevitable playoffs.
So, Mr. Regier, I hope you're listening. With the addition of an enforcer, backup goalie and offensive star, the Sabres can finally bring a championship to Buffalo. I've outlined a basic plan for you to follow, but purging bad contracts and overhauling the team is your responsibility. Good luck.