76 Months Later

By Chris

On July 1, 2001, the Buffalo Sabres traded away their greatest player in a generation.

Dominik Hasek finally got his wish and was shipped out to Detroit for Slava Kozlov, a first round pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft and those ever-mysterious “future considerations.” The team is still feeling the effects of the trade.

On the first day of that draft, June 22, 2002, general manager Darcy Regier set in motion a series of trades that eventually sent Kozlov to Atlanta. They started by taking that first round pick (30th overall) and the rights to Mike Pandolfo and sending them to Columbus for the 20th overall pick.

The Sabres selected winger Dan “Fat Crosby” Paille. Buffalo then packaged Kozlov and the 41st pick overall (eventually defenseman Joakim “Noah” Lindstrom) to Atlanta for 31st and 82nd picks overall in the 2002 draft.

Then, Regier parlayed the 88th overall pick and a 2nd round pick in 2003 to Nashville for the 36th pick overall in the 2002 draft. Darcy made one final move that day by dealing the 31st and 36th picks overall in the 2002 draft to Edmonton for winger Jochen Hecht. What it all comes down to is the Sabres trading the remainders of Hasek’a groin for Hecht and Paille.

In hindsight, couldn’t the Sabres have gotten more? Probably. But given the circumstances, Regier didn’t have much of a choice.

Ownership under John Rigas was as shrewd as ever, personified by the Michael Peca trade. Sure the Sabres were still contenders in 2001. They had just lost to the Penguins in a series they choked up. So the six-time Vezina Tropy winning gold medalist and his $7.5 million salary wanted out. But Hasek wanted to go to a team he considered a contender.

So in return we got one of the worst Sabres of our time: Slava Kozlov.

It’s not that he wasn’t talented, he definitely was and still is a quality player. He just didn’t mesh well with coach Lindy Ruff and did more harm than good behind the scenes. Kozlov eventually found himself in harm’s way and suffered a season ending injury, just as he seemed to be trying to fit in. Regier, notorious for protecting his coach (see the Jason Woolley trade as an example), he made a deal to ship the bad egg out.

So six years after the Hasek trade and five years after the Kozlov deal, the Sabres are left with Hecht, who has played just 253 games in four full seasons with Buffalo, and Paille, a blue chip prospect who is in his first full pro season, and is fighting for time as the team’s 12th forward. Both players are good in their own ends and are excellent penalty killers.

After 10 games this season, Hecht served as the team’s captain, and led them to a 5-5 record. Not exactly stellar. But the team still sits in tenth place in the East, just a point out of a playoff spot if the season ended now, and eight points behind mighty Ottawa for first place in the division. And ten of the next eleven games are against division opponents. A great time to make up some ground.

Now no one expected the Sabres to pull off the roller coaster ten game winning streak of last season. But the team has been so up and down that it’s hard to tell exactly what we’re looking at.

Realistically, Buffalo only lost four players in the offseason. Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Dainius Zubrus ended up in the Atlantic Division via free agency and Teppo Numminen has been nursing a heart condition since training camp opened. Players were expected to step up in more expanded roles and to live up to new contracts. Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy are prime examples #1 and #1A.

After a run and gun opening night which the ended up losing, the team came back and played a tight defensive game on Long Island. But they couldn’t put the puck in the end, something they looked to their former co-captains for.

Right off the bat, it was obvious that the team was struggling within itself to find its go-to-guys. The players you follow into battle that will lead you to victory.

Center Tim Connolly could be that guy. He’s tied for the team lead in points with defenseman Brian Campbell, but he’s more prone to looking for the pretty pass and setting up the easy goals (PLEASE SHOOT MORE, TIM!!!), like he has done for Pominville several times this season. Connolly’s been great on the powerplay, and so has Jaroslav Spacek, who up until this season, looked like a $3 million bust.

As soft as Pominville can be, no one on the team is better at moving to open spaces in front of the net to set up a shot on goal. The lack of toughness is a concern not just to Pominville, but to the team as a whole. Maybe finally getting gritty veteran defenseman Nolan Pratt in the line up will help alleviate some of those problems.

But the Sabres are really hoping that the go-to-guy is Thomas Vanek, the Ten Million Dollar Man whose play has been lackluster so far to say the least. He had just three goals in the month of October and an infinite number of after-whistle swearing spells. Love that we have seven more years of this guy dropping the F-Bomb after every shift.

After the “breakaway” against Carolina, where he decided to do a wrap-around-pass-out-front instead of taking it right to the net, he redeemed himself in Tampa Bay. After scoring that overtime goal, the team mobbed him like we beat Ottawa in five games again. It was definitely a “monkey off the back” moment and maybe the kick start the team needs.

Remember, the Sabres were pretty dreadful in November and December of 2005. And I consider that to be the greatest Sabres team of my lifetime. So there’s still a very good chance that this year’s team can find their way and get things going in the right direction.

Trading Hasek opened the door to a new era in Sabres history. We waded through a few years of mediocrity as fans before the team found our next franchise goaltender. Ryan Miller hasn’t been great so far, but he’s been good enough. He can be better and he’s going to have to be. Like the great teams of the late 1990’s, the goaltender has a chance to make the team his own. Miller is a leader and has the ability to take this team as far as he can carry them.

The journey continues tonight in Boston. Who is going to step up?