Often a team plagued by losing seasons, front-office upheaval and the departure of the club’s cornerstone player would be pretty low on the list of desirable landing spots for free agents.
That hasn’t been the case, however, with the Buffalo Sabres.
Despite the team’s abysmal 21-51-10 record and last-place finish this past season, the Sabres were able to attract high-caliber talent on the open market as the club continues to revamp its personnel in hopes of turning things around.
The Sabres, with first-year general manager Tim Murray at the helm, landed former Montreal Canadiens captain (and Rochester, New York native) Brian Gionta, as well as skilled winger Matt Moulson (who returned to Buffalo after being flipped to Minnesota at the trade deadline).
Even the acquisition of Josh Gorges via trade with the Habs took a pitch -- Gorges called former Habs teammate Gionta to consult whether to waive his no-trade clause this summer.
Not bad for a team that floundered at the bottom of the league standings for virtually the entire year before finishing 30th.
And the influx of new talent, new management and new coaching staff (Ted Nolan was hired in November before receiving an extension this summer, while assistants Arturs Irbe, Bryan Trottier, Danny Flynn and Tom Coolen recently joined the staff) brings a culture change.
“The thing is, it started over a year ago,” said former Sabres goaltender Martin Biron, who still resides in the area with his family. “They traded three captains -- Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Steve Ott, with Ryan Miller also traded -- so that’s four guys gone in a 12-month span. They retooled, rebuilt, brought in some picks, some young players and prospects to try and build from the ground up.”
According to Biron, who retired last season while playing for the New York Rangers, that push toward progress likely started at the behest of team owner Terry Pegula.
“From being in this area, and living here, that change of direction probably came from the top, from Terry and Kim [Pegula] on down. They did a lot of studying and crunching numbers on success and where it comes from. It comes from the draft and developing players,” Biron told ESPN.com in a telephone conversation.
That change of direction likely winnowed the list of GM candidates that ultimately led then-president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine to select Murray as the guy to lead the team (LaFontaine curiously resigned a few months later, less than four months after taking the job). Murray had experience in drafting and developing players from serving as the GM of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators and as the assistant GM of the Ottawa Senators.
“When they switched things up [following the dismissal of former GM Darcy Regier], that was a hot topic on the table. How will you be able to accomplish this?” Biron said of the development aspect. “I think the biggest part of his hiring was knowing [Murray] was going to be on board with that.”
Though they have seen some of the team’s biggest names and most beloved players leave, the Sabres boast some well-respected veterans as well as some burgeoning young leaders such as Drew Stafford. Add in some prospects who are challenging for a spot and a bevvy of draft picks in the future and the Sabres are all of the sudden an interesting team to watch.
One thing that could prove to be an Achilles' heel, however, is their goaltending. After trading Miller to the St. Louis Blues last season, the Sabres are left with Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth, neither of whom are considered bonafide starters.
“Obviously, that is a bit of a question mark moving forward,” Biron said. "For many years people in Buffalo have been lucky to have top goaltenders, [Dominik] Hasek, [Ryan] Miller, now they’re going into a bit of an unknown with Enroth or Neuvirth."
But Biron insists that the Sabres are well-stocked between the pipes with an abundance of quality goaltending prospects.
Nathan Lieuwen gained some NHL experience with seven games last season. They also have Calvin Petersen, Russian netminder Andrey Makarov and a pair of Swedes: Jonas Johansson and Linus Ullmark, the latter of whom caught Biron’s eye at a recent development camp.
Biron probably will be keeping tabs on those prospects given his new position as director of goaltending at the HARBORCENTER Academy of Hockey, which will open in October.
Between that and regular television work as an analyst for TSN, NHL Network and French-language RDS, Biron won’t be sitting back and taking it easy during retirement.
Already this summer he’s barely had a spare moment bouncing between his son’s baseball and football schedule and his daughters’ horse shows.
“It’s better that way,” Biron said. “I can’t sit around.”