BUFFALO – Instead of trading captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild before the deadline Wednesday, the 13th-place Sabres could’ve tried staying in the playoff chase and acquiring another player to make a run at eighth place, general manager Darcy Regier said.
But the Sabres, whose owner, Terry Pegula, has spent tens of millions of dollars pursuing his championship dream, no longer embrace that kind of philosophy.
They’ve started thinking long-term.
“The preference is to build for a Stanley Cup versus a playoff run,” Regier said late Wednesday afternoon inside the First Niagara Center.
Still, after trading arguably his best player and acknowledging the Sabres’ focus has shifted to the future, Regier wouldn’t say his struggling team has started rebuilding.
“I’m not going to use the ‘R’ word, but it allows us to draft and develop players and build the organization,” said Regier, who believes the new philosophy will “involve rolling back a little organizationally.”
Shortly before the 3 p.m. deadline, the Sabres dealt Pominville, a star winger, and a fourth-round pick in 2014 to Minnesota for goalie Matt Hackett, forward Johan Larsson, a first-round pick in June and a second-round selection in 2014.
With picks from the recent Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr deals, the Sabres now possess two first-round picks and two seconds in June, a first-rounder and three seconds in 2014 and a first-rounder and two seconds in 2015.
“It really is the lifeblood of the organization,” Regier said about draft picks, “and it is the surest way to get back up and running.”
The Wild first asked the Sabres about Pominville three weeks ago, Regier said.
When the Wild’s interest diminished, Regier still approached the 30-year-old for a list of eight teams he could refuse a trade to. Regier said he had “no real interest” in trading Pominville, although he wanted to keep his options open.
Then, Tuesday night, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, who had been talking with Regier about another player, said he wanted to focus on Pominville again.
“Honestly, when I entered it, Jason Pominville may have been at the bottom of the list of players I wanted to move,” Regier said.
How did Pominville, the Sabres’ captain the last two seasons, handle the news?
“Very professionally,” Regier said. “I actually called him before we had a chance to do the trade talk with the league and just let him know. … I felt bad because when I asked for the list there was nothing going on.”
But Pominville knew he could get dealt. On Tuesday afternoon in Pittsburgh, hours before recording two assists in his 578th and final game, a 4-1 win, the likable veteran said, “I understand the business of things. … (A trade) could happen.”
Pominville’s story is well known here. A second-round pick in 2001, he cleared waivers in 2005-06, getting bypassed by the 29 other teams. But he was an NHL regular just months later.
His highlight-reel, series-clinching overtime goal in the 2006 Eastern Conference semifinal ranks among the most famous moments in franchise history.
Pominville quickly became one of the Sabres’ best all-around and most consistent presences. He wasn’t flashy, but performed a little better than everyone else in most facets of the game.
He scored 34 goals in 2006-07 and had 80 points a year later. He scored at least 20 goals six straight seasons. He had 30 goals and 73 points last season, earning an All-Star appearance.
He compiled 185 goals and 456 points over parts of nine seasons.
The friendly Pominville was also a media favorite, never turning down an interview.
“Everything he represents as a player you can multiply by a big number as a person,” Regier said.
But the team performed poorly during his captaincy, missing the playoffs last season and starting this one 14-17-6.
When Regier said Saturday he could envision himself trading Pominville or goalie Ryan Miller, it appeared at least one core veteran star could get dealt.
The Sabres felt they had built a championship-caliber team prior to last season after spending freely in free agency.
Why haven’t things worked out well?
Regier laid blame on the group of core talent he put together.
“If you don’t have a foundation of players with which to add free agents to, you’re not likely to be successful, and we weren’t,” Regier said. “And that means you have to build the foundation first, you can add some free agents. But you’re not going to build the foundation through free agency.”
He thinks the Sabres will now pursue support players and shorter contracts in free agency.
Regier said the Sabres had a strong foundation before they let co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury leave in 2007.
“We tried to add to that,” Regier said. “It didn’t work.”
What does Pegula think of the team’s current state?
“I think what matters most is he talked Stanley Cup, and he didn’t talk about a playoff run or a playoff series or first round,” Regier said. “He’s focused first and foremost on the Stanley Cup.”
The two youngsters the Sabres acquired – Regier called them both “very good” prospects – will report to Rochester.
Larsson, the 56th overall pick in 2010, came to North America this year after two seasons in the Swedish Elite League. The 20-year-old had 15 goals and 37 points in 62 games with AHL Houston. He played his first and only NHL game Feb. 17. He also captained a Swedish national team.
The 23-year-old Hackett, the 77th overall pick in 2009, has spent most of this season with Houston, going 19-20-3 with a 2.66 goals-against average and .907 save percentage in 43 games.
Hackett has played one NHL game this season and 13 in the last two, accumulating some good numbers – 3-7, 2.64 and .914 – shuttling between Houston and Minnesota.
He backstopped the Aeros to the 2011 Calder Cup final as an AHL rookie.
Regier said Sabres winger Ville Leino, out the last two games, won’t play “anytime soon.” The injury isn’t related to his earlier hip problem, Regier said.