Before the 2011-12 season, Jason Pominville was named captain of the Buffalo Sabres in Europe. It was a weird moment in the history of the world. The team sat in a hotel conference room somewhere in Helsinki, Finland. Empty buffet tables stood in the background as the players sat around rectangular tables. Then-coach Lindy Ruff had a bag of jerseys and stood by the door.
Coming off the Craig Rivet era, a fruitless wading through the post Drury/Briere years, the team had no designated leader. After this, they would finally have one. In video of the announcement, Ruff talked for two minutes about leadership and what the team needs to do to win. “I think we have tremendous leadership on this team,” Ruff said. He later added that, “if we don’t have leadership everywhere, we have it nowhere.” Then he named his four assistant captains.
First came Paul Gaustad, who would be traded to Nashville four months later. The second assistant captain was Thomas Vanek, who looked like a dingo had just broken into the conference room and stolen his baby. Ruff told him he needed a stronger handshake. The third assistant captain was Derek Roy, one of the least-liked 30-goal scorers in Sabres history. The fourth was Drew Stafford, who was complimented on his handshake and today is the active leader in fan hatred.
Finally, Jason Pominville was given his No. 29 jersey with a C stitched to its chest. “I think this guy epitomizes a lot of what we are,” Ruff said before he made the announcement. Pominville would say a few words, echoing Ruff’s comments about accountability and teamwork and leadership.
The Sabres went 53-49-17 during the Jason Pominville captaincy. They missed the playoffs last season and are likely to repeat that result this year. On Wednesday, Pominville was traded to the Minnesota Wild for two prospects and a pair of draft picks. He had one year left on his contract with the Sabres.
If you take the last few hundred words as fact alone, there’s nothing more to it. But you know that’s not the case. Pominville’s departure is an indication of the massive failure of the last two seasons, and his career with the Sabres stretches through an even longer period of mediocrity. There may be nothing wrong with Pominville himself but—much like Derek Roy—he very quickly became a symbol for everything that’s wrong with the team. In Pominville’s case, he went from captain to consensus odd man out in the span of about a fortnight.
In the waning minutes of the trade window on Wednesday afternoon, I realized that as a fan I wanted much more change than just trading Jason Pominville. The corpse list for Sabres fans is long, but many felt even the useful parts of the team could use a one-way ticket out. Ryan Miller is not the only goaltender on the planet, and even future captain Steve Ott should not be untouchable. It they go, many thought, they go.
Ruff was right about Pominville. He really did epitomize the Sabres of recent memory, and that was exactly what was wrong with him. Forget the new tough-guy act the team has had this season. Pominville represents the mediocrity and overall failures of a group of players who all developed from draft picks to underachieving pros together. They were never good enough, and now they’ve run out of chances.
You could make the same argument about any player that’s gone from pick to pro with this franchise. Stafford is an easy choice as a failure, but maybe tougher ones like Vanek and Miller should be included as well. That’s not to say the team can’t win with the two remaining “core” players, but it’s nice to finally consider the idea of winning without them. Right now, both seem equally possible.
Pominville was the only real casualty in season, but he won’t be alone when everything is said and done. This is undoubtedly a good thing. Change will come, and Pominville (and others) will find success elsewhere. The captain thing, though, wasn’t working. It never felt right, and tonight starts another captain-less era of Sabres hockey.
Maybe the next guy with the letter will be right for the job.