I'm not normally nervous on Deadline Day. Darcy Regier has never been the type of general manager to make a "splash" on the Deadline. He's more the let-me-find-a-great-player-when-we're-not-making-the-playoffs (see Daniel Briere) or please-forget-this-trade-as-soon-as-possible (see Bob Corkum).
But today's a little different. Call it contender syndrome. Call it the cap conundrum. Maybe I'm still in a little shock after seeing Chris Drury's blood splattered on the ice last Thursday. Whatever it is, while many Sabres fans are concerned about dollar signs, I'm boggled down by a few other thoughts today too:
1) Not biology or physics... it's the chemistry, baby!
The mayhem against Ottawa proved once again that the chemistry inside the Buffalo dressing room is second to none. Drew Stafford, a Rochester call-up and not seen as a rough-and-tumbler, leapt into action after Chris Neil nailed Drury. He didn't hesitate; he just started throwing punches. And while Stafford's only played a handful of games, he, like the other call-ups, plays right into the system that is Sabres hockey. The bind is stronger than defensive pairings or Buffalo-Rochester; it's engraved deeply into the organization that begins with Lindy Ruff and ends... who knows where. It continued on the next shift, when all five guys plus Marty Biron defended their captain. You can't teach that in the last couple of weeks of the season. If a guy is brought in, he must be of the personality that isn't going to detract from the chemistry established in Buffalo already. And the guy you take out -- well, that's another issue.
2) This year may be destiny -- or not
TBN columnist Jerry Sullivan was on WGR 550 today, spouting out how Regier must think differently because Buffalo has never won a championship in football or hockey. Thus, since the Sabres are so close, it has to be all about this year. I understand that Drury and Daniel Briere might be out of town after this season due to the economics of the game, but I disagree with anyone who thinks this year they win or that's it. Regier has built a system of young guys not only in the NHL, but also at the minor league level, understanding that in the new NHL there will be turnover. With the cap situation as such, Regier must be careful with the rent-a-player scenarios. He's worked hard to get this group under contract and locked up for the next few years; it may not be worth it to sacrifice one or two young forwards for a veteran for just this playoffs.
3) What the holes were last year at this time
Why did Buffalo eventually lose out last year? The easy answer is that injuries, mostly on defense, cost them a shot at Lord Stanley. But the reality is that rash of injuries, along with this current one, isn't just bad luck (as much as fans try to convince themselves that's the case). This team still lacks toughness and size. While Drury is no doubt gritty in the trenches, and there maybe be few forwards peskier than Derek Roy, no one in the lineup strikes fear in an opposing team. And there is the perception that a team can push Buffalo around and get players off their game. Philadelphia tried last year, and ultimately failed. But injuries continued to pile up. I don't think a fourth-line banger would hurt the cause. And you have to remember that this year's squad is without Mike Grier and Jay McKee, two from last year's crew that took care of a lot of the hitting required to "send a message."
4) The case for Marty Biron
I firmly agreed with Mike Robitaille and Co. that keeping goaltender Biron around this season was the right choice. Goaltending is by far the most important position; why not have depth where it counts most? And Biron's personality seems to perfectly complement Ryan Miller's intense, complex style. But with most of the season behind us, and Buffalo sitting comfortably at the top of the division, Biron's $2 million+ salary weighs heavy. With the recent injuries and the real possibility that Tim Connolly may not return this season, Biron is the obvious choice to help clear cap space. Besides, does any Sabre fan truly believe that Buffalo can win if Miller went down with an injury? Few, I suppose. Regier's difficulty here is the problem that he's faced since last season -- the market just doesn't seem ripe.
I firmly believe the Sabres can win as presently constituted. But no Connolly (or a half-strength Connolly)? A late return from Max? A no-show from Thomas Vanek again? The playoffs aren't fun and games like the regular season has been this season for the Sabres. The pressure's on Regier to make sure that the playoffs this year maybe could be.