BUFFALO – Darcy Regier’s strong words stuck with Thomas Vanek. Prior to Saturday, the general manager had never publicly made any of his Sabres available to other teams during his long tenure. At that point, four days before trade deadline, the slick winger knew major changes could hit the Sabres.
Sure enough, Regier dealt captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday for two prospects and two draft picks.
It could just be the first of several major moves.
“Now with Jason gone, it obviously sends a message change is happening,” Vanek said Thursday inside the First Niagara Center after preparing for tonight’s tilt against the Ottawa Senators. “I’m disappointed because I lost a good friend. But I understand the business side of it.”
In trading a franchise cornerstone, Regier said the Sabres’ focus had shifted to the future. He acknowledged the foundation he built – which includes core players Pominville, Vanek and goalie Ryan Miller – wasn’t good enough.
“We didn’t get it done,” Vanek said. “I didn’t think we were that far away. I think add one or two pieces, I think we could’ve been stronger.”
Miller believes the Sabres “were close,” just “a piece or two away.”
“I thought all the guys that were identified were strong players, have done a pretty good job,” Miller said. “When the ultimate goal is to win a championship, it’s pretty easy to step back from all of it and say it didn’t work, we didn’t do enough. It wasn’t for lack of trying. We just regroup and figure out what the plan is moving forward, if you’re a part of it or not.”
Fixing the Sabres – remember, Regier wouldn’t use the word “rebuild” – could take years.
Vanek said Sunday he would like to stay but “would probably look in the other direction” if the Sabres had a two- or three-year plan.
So, did Pominville’s departure, coupled with the earlier trades of defensemen Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr, change Vanek’s mind?
“Probably, I mean, obviously we gave up three good players in the last week, got a lot of picks in return,” said Vanek, a free agent after next season. “Again, we’ll see.”
Vanek stressed he hasn’t spoken to management yet and likely won’t until after the season ends.
“It’s hard to say yes or no because no one has let me know what direction this is heading,” Vanek said.
Miller, also rumored to be on the trading block, stayed in bed all day Wednesday anxiously waiting for the deadline to pass.
He also plans to talk with Regier about the Sabres’ future.
“It’s obviously something that hasn’t been planned out,” Miller said. “I think Darcy is just trying to take into consideration all the options he had. … I guess it’s hard to pass up the return you get when you get draft picks and prospects. I took Jason’s value pretty high organizationally.”
Clearly, saying goodbye to Pominville was tough for Vanek and Miller, who had spent their entire professional careers with the popular winger.
“I think he was shocked, too,” said Vanek, who drove Pominville to the airport Thursday morning. “But he knew there was a chance it would happen. But I think at the same time, he’s excited to move on to a really good team out in the west.”
Miller called Wednesday “not a great day.”
“It’s tough to watch him go,” Miller said. “That’s what happens when you don’t perform in a season as a team. You get players that have value. Jason has a lot of value. Hopefully, he can do something special with his new team.”
He spent 11 years “right next to” Pominville – they both began their professional careers with Rochester in 2002-03 – maturing from green rookies into NHL stars.
Miller sounded nostalgic talking about his early memories of Pominville.
“It was fun to come the first year,” Miller recalled. “His wife Kim would visit. I’d try to talk to her. She’d just nod because she didn’t speak any English. Pommer would come up and say, ‘Millsie, she doesn’t speak any English.’ Obviously, they have two beautiful children and she speaks great English.”
Later on, Miller passionately talked about Pominville’s selfless, team-first attitude, illustrating his point by saying he would’ve accumulated more points playing up front on the power play instead of manning a point for years, yet never complained.
“I would argue I want him close to the net,” Miller said. “So he sucks it up, does what he has to do and doesn’t complain, say anything, does his job. That’s the unfortunate part is those are the kind of guys you want, and we haven’t been able to keep them lately.”
Miller then cut off a question, ending the interview.
Earlier, Miller said the Sabres, who trailed eighth-place New Jersey by five points as he spoke, still have an opportunity.
“If you’re going to wallow and mope, cash in your cards, that’s not the situation you want,” he said. “It’s up for us to react in the right way.”
He added: “The hockey’s been a little bit better. We’re hanging around not where we need to be, but a place where we can still accomplish our goals. It’s up for us to write our own story.”
Interim coach Ron Rolston said the Sabres will treat the final 11 games like “we’re going to make the playoffs.”