For years, the Buffalo Sabres have built from within. One peek at their roster reveals a team that places extreme importance on drafting players and properly preparing them for the future. For better or for worse, it is a strategy that both the general manager Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff have stood by.
Strangely, and perhaps in desperation, Buffalo broke away from that tradition at this season’s trade deadline. Involved in two separate deals on the rather underwhelming day, their second one grabbed the headlines and was perceived to be the major transaction of them all. Before the deal in its entirety was shared, the two confirmed names that switched sides were Cody Hodgson of the Vancouver Canucks and Zack Kassian.
On some levels, it made sense: Hodgson is further along in his development and showing promising signs as a two-way center. In other ways, it did not look to be logical: Kassian symbolized that imposing power forward who could throw unforgiving hits and use his hands for both fighting and scoring. His attributes are exactly what the Sabres have been long criticized for lacking, mainly the size and intimidation aspects.
Now, after obtaining that missing piece in Kassian, they decided to give up on the 21-year-old after he was 27 games into his professional career. Why exactly?
A shake-up was the proper course of action because this club started with Stanley Cup expectations in September. By January, their goal shrunk down to just earning a single win on the road.
Buffalo sacrificed leadership for a first-round draft pick by releasing Paul Gaustad to the Nashville Predators. Such a deal fits right into their philosophy of making good players, not purchasing them.
It’ll be years before it becomes clear who got the better bargain in the Hodgson-Kassian swap. In a deal with two former first-round choices, each side looks to be satisfied with their immediate return. This one half of the trade works for Buffalo, as Hodgson has the higher long-term upside.
The other half of the trade, shared only minutes later by the TSN panel, involved Marc-Andre Gragnani and Alexander Sulzer. While the Sabres can be applauded for bringing in Hodgson, dropping the aforementioned Gragnani so hastily was highly uncharacteristic of them.
Little went right for the defenseman this season, but it’s astonishing how quickly people let his good traits slip from their memory. The same person who eventually became a dominant force in the American Hockey League, then scored an overtime goal that brushed the Carolina Hurricanes away from a playoff spot that they too were chasing and who was equally inspirational in Buffalo’s short-lived postseason, was now enduring the wrath of supporters.
Nothing extinguishes one’s success from the past as suddenly as their present woes. Clumsy turn-overs and futile showings haunted him in 2012, even though he prospered beyond belief only one year earlier.
Whatever happened to the patience that Buffalo preached for its prospects? Are people so quick to give up on a player because of one bad campaign? Does anyone, during the worst of times, still keep in mind that it’s a process? Rome was not built in a day, as aren’t star athletes.
In fact, Ryan Miller, unquestionably Buffalo’s backbone, had a rough patch of his own in 2004. Three starts were his reward and he found little sympathy from the opposition, as he surrendered 15 goals and sported a disastrous .795 save percentage. Returning to the AHL for more seasoning, Miller’s next shot wouldn’t come until after the lock-out and he’s proven himself as a top-of-the-line netminder.
What about Tyler Myers’ sophomore problems, or better yet, Michael Del Zotto’s over in New York? One of them won the Calder Trophy and the other stayed in the conversation for a large chunk of the season. Struggles are intertwined with the learning curve and unfortunately for Del Zotto, that overpowered the 21-year-old in his second year. Equally, Myers ran into issues well, but salvaged some pride with a resilient showing in the latter part of the campaign.
Dealing with such trials has taught all three men that to install yourself in this league permanently is not done overnight. Each and every contest is a battle for points and job security. On certain days, they feel bothered by their poor efforts in a way that makes them helpless. But that is when players discover the most about themselves.
Ryan Miller, Tyler Myers and Michael Del Zotto dug deep to escape their despair. Keep in mind that they were afforded that vital window of opportunity to shape their respective games. Management maintained its investments in the players.
Gragnani, a puck-moving specialist, could have easily achieved the same with support and assistance from his superiors. Essentially, the Buffalo Sabres shipped off a 24-year-old with ‘serious potential’ written all over him, for a slightly older depth defenseman.
As a unified group, Buffalo did not reach the heights they planned for and Gragnani’s status as a rookie perhaps added to his vulnerability in trade discussions. Vancouver seems like the perfect place for him to find himself.
Alain Vigneault coached Gragnani for two years in the Quebec Junior League, so he knows what to expect. The head coach of the Canucks has promised to provide Gragnani with a legitimate opportunity, one that includes quarterbacking the first powerplay unit.
With a familiar face behind the bench and a style of play in Vancouver that should elevate his own strengths, Gragnani has enhanced his career prospects.
As you are well aware, this is not the first hefty business transaction between the two clubs. Christian Ehrhoff, a key unrestricted free agent last summer, deserted Vancouver for a 10-year, $40 million contract in Buffalo. Losing him wasn’t easy, but the Sabres paid a steep price for his signature.
As if Ehrhoff’s payment wasn’t troubling enough, Buffalo provided Vancouver with a defenseman who will possibly assume control over the German’s former duties someday.
In an organization that could afford $20 million in salaries for three off-season additions, it’s a shame that it failed to simply afford Marc-Andre Gragnani more time.