With Ron Rolston calling up his core from Rochester and Jhonas Enroth showing promise, is most of the current Buffalo Sabres team being put on notice? Hopefully.

Brian Flynn, Kevin Porter and now Mark Pysyk are all now wearing the cross swords. I believe the arrival of these players is only a precursor to a "housecleaning" by Darcy Regier leading up to the trade deadline and during this offseason. It's becoming more and more clear that this team, as much as they have been performing better since Rolston took over, is still probably too far behind to make the playoffs. 

There is a list of players—Jochen Hecht, Drew Stafford, Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr—that should consider their time with the Sabres running out. Hecht has been a healthy scratch and was a favorite of former coach Lindy Ruff. Stafford has recently expressed interest in leaving. Leopold and Regehr are over 30 and have expiring contracts. 

That is a large chunk of salary cap as well. This team will have plenty of space under the cap to make a move or two. There is also another move that seems to be zipping around: trading Ryan Miller.

It's really no secret that Miller's time is also short. If this team is to rebuild, he probably isn't interested himself and the team probably needs to explore a younger option. One of those options is Jhonas Enroth, who had a very strong showing last night against the Montreal Canadiens.

I'm not saying that Enroth is the answer, but he did pass last night's test with flying colors. There are other options to replace Miller, including the talents of Jonathan Bernier, which are wasting away behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. One thing is for sure: The front office has invested so much in Miller that there are no options in the system outside of Enroth.

There also needs to be a change in player leadership. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek are suitable assistant captains, to me. Pominville just doesn't possess the right personality for team captain. That's no slight against him. He's just not that type of leader.

I love what Steve Ott brings to this team, and Ville Leino seems to be showing why Regier paid him to come to town, but neither strike me as what they need in a captain. I feel like the only player on the roster who may be a solid choice is Tyler Ennis. 

We also shouldn't necessarily look at guys like Flynn and Porter as guys who are locks to be on the roster. Honestly, neither seems like nightly NHL talent. There are options in free agency. The names that stand out to me include Valtteri Filppula, Dustin Penner, David Clarkson, Stephen Weiss and Mark Streit. Streit could also be a candidate for captain.

Regardless, there will be many changes. There may even be a new coach, although Rolston seems to be making progress with the current team. There will be quite a few changes, and it could start leading into the trade deadline.

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The Buffalo Sabres are descending toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference and may have just been dealt a crushing blow in Tuesday night's tilt versus the Montreal Canadiens. According to John Lu of TSN, winger Thomas Vanek left the contest with an injury suffered after taking a slap shot to his upper body:

UPDATE: Friday, March 22 at 12:45 p.m. ET by Matt Fitzgerald

According to Sabres beat reporter Bill Hoppe of the Times Herald, Vanek plans to return to the ice tomorrow night for Buffalo's road contest against the Montreal Canadiens.

Paul Hamilton of WGR550.com asked Vanek directly about playing tomorrow night. 

Venek said: 

“Yes, I assume so unless I have a setback tonight, but as of right now I feel good.”

--End of Update--

 

UPDATE: Thursday, March 21 at 11:30 a.m. ET by Tim Daniels

It's now official. Vanek won't play for the Sabres on Thursday night against their division rivals from Toronto, as reported on the team's Twitter feed. Interim head coach Ron Rolston hopes he's ready to return by Saturday vs. the Montreal Canadiens.

---End of update---

 

UPDATE: Thursday, March 21 at 10:40 a.m. ET by Tim Daniels

The Sabres' official Twitter feed reports Vanek didn't take part in the morning skate ahead of tonight's game against the Maple Leafs. Although he hasn't been ruled out yet, it certainly doesn't bode well for his chances of playing.

---End of update---

 

UPDATE: Wednesday, March 20 at 1:50 p.m. ET by Tim Daniels

Vanek is considered questionable for Buffalo's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, reports Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald. Interim head coach Ron Rolston didn't rule him out, saying the decision will come down to Vanek's ability to handle the pain.

"He’s a little bit better but still going to be day-to-day, what he can tolerate," interim Sabres coach Ron Rolston said this afternoon inside the First Niagara Center. "He’s certainly a possibility."

---End of update---

 

Positioned deep in the Canadiens zone during a power play, Vanek was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Teammate Christian Ehrhoff loaded up for a shot from back near the blue line, and it struck Vanek's upper body. He was then taken out of the game and did not return to the ice with his teammates following the second-period intermission.

The entire sequence was strangely familiar for the 2012-13 Sabres. They were 10-15-4 heading into Tuesday night's game, good for 24 points and a second-worst standing in the Eastern Conference. The team has struggled on power plays and just about every other scoring opportunity and could be in store for a major overhaul by the April 3 trade deadline. 

Despite all of his teammates' struggles, Vanek has remained one of the few bright spots. He came into Tuesday night's game with a team-high 31 points, scoring 14 goals and adding 17 assists. A 29-year-old winger in the prime of his career, Vanek has been one of the faces of the franchise since Buffalo drafted him back in 2003.

Though their playoff dreams are just about finished, the Sabres will undoubtedly want to get a good view of their future the remainder of the season. There are bound to be even more new faces in the future, and they will want to evaluate how each plays within varied lines.

Without Vanek—the team's franchise player—in the lineup, there is no proper way to do that. So while the team won't be rushing him back, they certainly will be anxiously awaiting word on his condition. Any long-term injury could not only hurt the team's present, but its future, as it tries to climb out of a season-long abyss. 

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Ryan Miller is an elite NHL goaltender and one of the few bright spots in what has been a disastrous 2013 season for the Buffalo Sabres.

With the team sitting in 13th place in the Eastern Conference and its chances of the making the playoffs very small, the Sabres could begin to think about rebuilding their team.

How does Miller fit in with the team's long-term plans? Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos talked about Miller's future in Buffalo during the latest edition of Hockey Central Insiders (click here for full video):

The other interesting name that is starting to float around, is yes, Ryan Miller. Ryan Miller's got another year at over $6.0 million next season, but he's not going to get a contract extensions and it's time to move on off of Ryan Miller.

They'd dearly love to move him at the deadline, but with that shrinking goaltender market out there it might not be the case. They might have to wait until the summer or even into next season.

But Ryan Miller's days are numbered in Buffalo.

Should the Sabres part ways with Miller and begin to rebuild?

Yes, the club's current core of players is not going to contend for the Stanley Cup, and the best decision that general manager Darcy Regier can make for the franchise's future is to trade his starting goaltender for a package that could include young NHL players, top prospects and draft picks. Cody Hodgson is the team's only young star at forward, and other than Tyler Myers (who's had a terrible season), there is very little young talent on the blue line.

Buffalo has spent a lot of money since Terry Pegula took over as the team's owner in 2010, but playoff success has not resulted from the increased amount of funds that management has been given to use in free agency and the trade market.

It's time for the Sabres to start drafting and developing more homegrown players, and since the 2013 draft class is so strong, this is the perfect year to stockpile first, second and third round picks.

Many of the Sabres' best players have just one more year left on their contract, and if the team is going to rebuild, trading these players before they can leave in free agency must be considered.

Player Age Position Salary Cap Hit FA Status
Thomas Vanek 29 LW $7.143 million UFA 2014
Jason Pominville 30 RW $5.3 million UFA 2014
Tyler Ennis 23 C $2.812 million RFA 2014
Steve Ott 30 C $2.95 million UFA 2014
Ryan Miller 32 G $6.25 million UFA 2014

Parting ways Miller would be a good first step for the Sabres if they choose to rebuild, but they must wait until the right deal comes along before trading him, because if this team is going to undergo a successful rebuild in the near future, it must get as much value for Miller as possible.

He's arguably the team's most valuable trade chip because of his No. 1 goalie status. It should also be noted that Miller has a no-trade clause in his contract, and according to Capgeek, he "can list eight teams he will not accept a trade to."

Since there is no one on Buffalo's roster or in their organization who's capable of being the No. 1 netminder of the future, the Sabres should look for Miller's future replacement via trade. Los Angeles Kings backup Jonathan Bernier would be a great fit for this team. He is an RFA at the end of the season, and since Jonathan Quick is the No. 1 goalie in LA, it's possible that the Kings could move Bernier this season.

Kypreos mentions in the passage above that the Sabres may look to trade Miller in the summer rather than before the April 3 trade deadline, and I think that's the best scenario. The number of teams that could be looking for goaltending will probably be larger in the summer when clubs lose free agents and players are bought out.

Miller is still an elite player, and since he's only 32 years old, he should be a No. 1 goalie for many more years. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2010 and has played well in high-pressure situations throughout his career (Winter Olympics included).

As the chart below shows, his stats have been consistently impressive over the last four seasons, especially when you consider the fact that the Sabres have not played well defensively over the last two years.

Year W/L/OT GAA SV%
2009-10 41-18-8 2.22 .929
2010-11 34-22-8 2.59 .916
2011-12 31-21-7 2.55 .916
2012-13 9-12-3 2.83 .914

The number of quality goaltenders expected to hit the free agent market this summer is small (per Capgeek), and includes players such as Niklas Backstrom, Evgeni Nabokov, Tim Thomas (who is not playing in 2013), Mike Smith, and Jimmy Howard.

It's hard to imagine the Phoenix Coyotes and Detroit Red Wings failing to re-sign Smith and Howard, respectively, so there will likely be no franchise goaltenders for teams to pursue in free agency during the offseason.

This means that Miller could be the best option for playoff contenders that think they are a goaltending upgrade away from competing for the Stanley Cup.

Miller and the one year remaining on his contract is a better solution for a contending team's goaltending woes than Vancouver Canucks star Roberto Luongo (nine more years left on his contract) or Philadelphia Flyers netminder Ilya Bryzgalov (if he's bought out in the summer and becomes a UFA).

Depending on how free agency goes and which players are bought out, there could be several playoff contenders looking for goaltending help in the summer, including the Tampa Bay Lightning, Minnesota Wild, Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers and the Flyers.

There's no rush to trade Miller because he is under contract for next season and there is still a slight chance Buffalo will make the playoffs this season, but if he's not part of the team's long-term plans, it would be wise of the Sabres to see what kind of value he has on the trade market.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs.

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