Buffalo Sabres: Murray Takes the Goat by the Horns

EDITOR’S NOTE: The influx of new talent continues here at Ice Nation UK, as we introduce you to our new Buffalo Sabres contributor Cassandra Crawford. Cas is based in Pennsylvania and will be bringing her own unique style of analysis and debate to the table, examining the strategies employed from Sabres’ management down to the coaching staff and individual players. A keen hockey observer and entertaining writer, Cas is a welcome addition to the team – enjoy!

Former Sabres' goaltender Ryan Miller has enjoyed a terrific start in St Louis. (Image courtesy of twincities.com)

Former Sabres’ goaltender Ryan Miller has enjoyed a terrific start in St Louis. (Image courtesy of twincities.com)

The Sabres are the NHL team no-one wants to be. Sitting in last place, they’ve become fans’ favorite punch line, the ‘other Buffalo team’ who never takes home the big prize. For the Buffalo loyal, this season’s trade deadline became one more indecency to suffer.

Tim Murray, the new GM, did the unthinkable by reaching in and pulling out the soul of the team. As Ryan Miller and Steve Ott packed their gear and shuffled off from Buffalo, fans wailed and moaned, some even ran straight for the St. Louis band-wagon.

Murray was making a clear statement to the team and the fans about how his term as GM is going to be run. Things are going to change, a lot.

Despite all the rhetoric about hurt feelings and emotional attachments to individual players, Murray is the best thing to happen in Buffalo hockey in a very long time. Team-shaking change is exactly what the Sabres desperately need. For sixteen years Reiger and Ruff did the same things the same way and got worse results each season. Since their Stanley Cup Finals loss to the Stars in 1999, the Sabres have never returned to the finals.

Murray is their chance at being a seriously competitive team again. He’s taken a hammer to the Sabres’ habit of building a team on the back of the goalie by removing Ryan Miller and while Ott was a competitive player and a hit with the fans, he wasn’t an effective leader. He had the respect of the younger players, but that respect was holding the team back from being a more aggressive offensive team. Murray is forcing a new culture into the organization and is collecting the types of players who will give the Sabres a solid team in and out of the crease.

Chris Stewart. (Image courtesy of recorder.com)

Chris Stewart. (Image courtesy of recorder.com)

Murray’s approach to the trade was ruthless, shrewd, and focused. After traumatizing fans by sending Miller and Ott to the Blues for goalie Jaroslav Halak and winger Chris Stewart, he excised fan favorite Matt Moulson and center Cody McCormick.

Fans felt bad for Halak, who barely had time to take off his coat before Murray had sent him on to the Capitals in exchange for Michal Neuvirth and Rostislav Klesla. Meanwhile, most didn’t notice his shuffle of Amerks players McNabb and Parker to the LA Kings for Nicolas Deslauriers and prospect Hudson Fasching. Murray’s quiet acquisition of Cory Conacher off waivers from the Ottawa Senators was also a low-key maneuver that is likely to pay off big for the team.

Fans need to look at this trade round as a whole to get a clear picture of Murray’s strategy and why it’s a success. Not every trade gave him an obvious advantage, but the net results are a big win for Murray and the Sabres. He’s set the Sabres up with a net gain of five new top-3 draft picks over the next 3 years. The 2014 draft is stacked with 6 Top-3 picks and with $34 million in cap room, Murray has money to spend.

The player trades were multi-step deals to gain the kind of high-energy players the team needs. Stewart is an aggressive player who has more goals than Moulson and McCormick combined. Plus, he came with prospect William Carrier, who’s tearing up the QMJHL with 61 points so far this season. Halak became bait for a trade with the Capitals for Neuvirth. Neuvirth brings more size into the Sabres net and will be a better fit with a fast-paced team.

These roster changes are going to force a major culture shift on the ice. Without Ott to lead the team, one of the younger veterans has the opportunity to step up and change the level of play. Drew Stafford has the ability to bring the energy back to the team that they’ve obviously lacked. He’s quick, smart, and not afraid to shoot the puck, which is the team’s biggest problem. Learning to pull the trigger more often will keep the weight of the team off the goalie and put the potential to win games back on the sticks of the skaters. They’ve proven the former isn’t a winning strategy, and it’s one that Murray’s trades and restructure aren’t going to support.

The Sabres will need Drew Stafford to be more dominant moving forward. (Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com)

The Sabres will need Drew Stafford to be more dominant moving forward. (Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com)

Bringing in Chris Stewart is going to put pressure on under-performing players, such as Foligno, Flynn, and Leino. He’s a player who isn’t going to be afraid to come in and be aggressive, taking the shots on goal the current lines aren’t. Younger guys like Conacher and Deslauriers are going to bring a new energy to the game and make the veterans work for their slots on the line. Ideally, players like Stafford, Ennis, and Myers are going to feed off a faster-paced, risk-taking style to take more chances and hopefully in the long-run, score more goals.

This is also the chance for guys like Konopka and Scott to get the coach’s attention by rising to the play of their new line-mates. Konopka hasn’t been well utilized for his face-off skills, which has been disappointing. Mixing up lines with new faces may change that and help put his talent in the circle to better use. Scott’s efforts to improve his game haven’t paid off yet on the ice, but showing he’s got heart and the courage to work hard to break out of his box, (not the penalty box in this case), is exactly what all the players need to do and Murray his given them all a clean slate to work from.

GM Tim Murray has dealt his hand and only time will tell if his decisions were the right ones. (Image courtesy of o.canada.com)

GM Tim Murray has dealt his hand and only time will tell if his decisions were the right ones. (Image courtesy of o.canada.com)

The team Murray’s assembled has huge potential. How fast fans see it on the ice is in Nolan’s hands. Skeptics say maybe 3-4 years for a contending team. But if real leaders emerge on the ice and players like Foligno and Leino start to deliver on their talent, fans could see the reward for all their pain come a good bit sooner. Nolan’s been handed talented players and the team has the money to add even more. Stripping out the pillars of the old way to play Sabres hockey is going to change the team’s on-ice dynamic and require a higher level of play from everyone.

Murray has made it clear he’s not going to shy away from making hard decisions and unpopular choices. He needs to foster that same attitude in Nolan if he wants to see results. The Sabres need to run their team on the facts and realities of their game, not nostalgia. The new glory days are out there, if the organization can look forward and leave the past where it belongs.

Follow Cas on Twitter, and while you’re at it follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk.




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