When talking to Sabres’ fans during this offseason, I have come to realize most I have spoken with love the edge newly acquired winger/center Steve Ott brings to the table. Most of them also deem that trade in exchange for Derek Roy has also set up another trade. One they believe will acquire a top-end center, because they are “thin at the position.”
But are they?
Looking on paper, Buffalo is the deepest they have been at the position since that rotten July, 2007 Sunday that will live on forever in Buffalo sports infamy. Quick side note — I know I am not the only one in Buffalo that cringes whenever Briere scores in the postseason, especially in the clutch (which it seems he does oh, so often). But I digress.
With opening night against Pittsburgh less than three months away, I am fairly confident that this team has four competent centers ready to fill their roles. Though they do not sport a true number one center yet, they have two young guys in Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson who seem poised to be viable number ones in the near future. Clearly, teams — perennial playoff teams included — can do a lot worse than two 22-year old former first round picks with oodles of potential as their top two guys down the middle. The New Jersey Devils just won 14 postseason games en route to being runner-ups for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Their top three centers were rookie Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and David Clarkson. Is it farfetched to believe a trio consisting of Ennis and Hodgson, along with (take your pick as it is anyone’s guess who snags the third-line center opening) Zemgus Girgensons, Mikhail Grigorenko, or Luke Adam, are just as equipped to lead their respective team to June ice time?
Speaking of the third line center vacancy — not to mention the fourth line as well — let’s break that down a bit. To do that, we must first examine why those positions can be filled with players already in the organization, and not with outside talent.
There has been a lot of stammering among fans for General Manager Darcy Regier to make a move for a proven number one center to relieve some of the pressure off the two young guys. In today’s game, fans and the front office alike need to accept the facts. This fact is, with Rick Nash and Bobby Ryan yet to be moved, there is absolutely no market set for a high-caliber player. An alternative solution to a trade that may be explored is to hire Bucky Gleason as GM for a day and he could talk Mike Modano into being our number three as he once so quietly suggested. I know it is hard to identify sarcasm in text, so I will tell you that, yes, that last sentence is complete and utter sarcasm.
For those that want Darcy to make a move, I, like every die-hard fan, have heard plenty of Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny rumors in the last few months — scratch that, in the last year. As nice as it would be to sport him with the current top two centers, Stastny’s trade value at this point seems be unreasonably high. Based on the asking price of Nash and Ryan, I would guess it would take a top prospect, high draft pick and a current NHL player to get him. Think something along the lines of giving up Brayden McNabb, a first or second round pick and maybe a Drew Stafford for the services of the 26-year old forward. That is simply too much as it weakens too many other areas of the team. It is also highly implausible when you consider Regier’s reluctance to trade his highly-coveted prospects. WGR’s Paul Hamilton, who covers the team very extensively, considers McNabb and fellow defenseman Tyler Myers the only untouchables in the organization. Would Colorado even consider dealing such a young, talented center for anything less than one of Buffalo’s top prospects? Perhaps. But, that would also require the Sabres to part with a more endowed roster player. I guess what I am trying to say is, a deal for a top center right now is just about as likely as watching an episode Keeping up with the Kardashians and not hearing one ounce of bitching from the mouths of those snooty millionaires. Seriously, Bruce Jenner, how have you not drunk yourself straight into rehab?
Fans should also not give their hopes up for a big trade because of the green. There is simply not enough money to go around. Say the Sabres acquired a center without parting ways with one in exchange. That acquired center would likely be around for say, at least five years. What would then happen to Ennis, Hodgson, Grigorenko, Girgensons, and Adam? Most, if not all of those guys are likely to demand some serious dollars once they adjust fully to the NHL and want a long-term deal. This is especially true considering the foolish money thrown at free agents nowadays. Realistically, with huge money tied up long term to Ville Leino, Tyler Myers, Christian Ehrhoff, among an up-and-comer such as McNabb surely to get paid, where would this money come from? With the five centers Buffalo has, they are sitting pretty right about now with the freedom to do whatever they choose with them. They are all young, which consequently means relatively cheap. Watch them perform for a few years and then assess the situation. Pay the guys you want to keep, then trade or release the one’s that no longer fit into the equation. Maybe they all even have a spot on the team. Find me one respected hockey personality that does not believe at least one of the above mentioned names will not develop into a number one — heck, perhaps two or three will. Adding an additional center will only complicate things and force management to make a roster move down the road they are not fully comfortable making. Money is tight as it is. There is no need to invest even more into a position that is sure to be expensive in the future.
Rome was not built in a day. The same goes for the hopeful Pegula-led championship. Trading for a number one center may help right now, but why rid valuable assets for a position they are so young and talented at? The hockey world watched Cody Hodgson plea his way out of Vancouver last trade deadline because he was set to be their third center for the foreseeable future. The same situation occurred in Pittsburgh with Jordan Staal after the season. A log-jam at center is not what this team needs when focusing on winning a cup.
The Sabres could still run into such a log-jam at center with the current roster if everyone pans out the way Darcy has planned. But, with the available centers the team has, one of them could easily fit the billing as a solid number three this year, and undoubtedly they have a fourth liner on the current roster.
I am certainly in the minority with the thought that there is enough organizational depth at center to build a perennial power for both now, and in the future. Think about it in terms of this year only for a second, though. Cody McCormick and Matt Ellis each are viable fourth line NHL centers, and whoever is not in the middle, will be a winger on the fourth line. That leaves one whole to fill — the third line center. You have Adam, who showed some promise at the beginning of last year, and he hopefully worked out the kinks in his game during his stint in Rochester last year after being demoted.
There is also the third-ranked player in this year’s draft by NHL Central Scouting in Grigorenko. Maybe living his dream of playing in the NHL will augment his motivation and effort — the thing that scared so many teams away from drafting him. Regier was certainly impressed by his game at development camp last week, saying he will have every opportunity to make the team.
Last is Girgensons. All reports I have read are that he also impressed at development camp. He is a big, two-way center that is not afraid to throw his weight around. Even at 18, he has a pro-ready body, and a game that suits him as a perfect third liner this year.
Only one center position needs to be filled this year and I am going on the record to say all three of those players will not flame out and be unfit for the show come October. Two may not be prepared, but at least one will be a feasible option. Plus, if they decide on one or both of the 18-year olds, that is the new fab in the league. The number of teenagers playing in the NHL continues to climb every year, so it is not a hard-pressed to think the Sabres will give these guys the Myers treatment. Hell, maybe the team can even get a goal or two out of one of the depth centers come playoff time. Looking at you, Paul Gaustad.
So look on the bright side, Sabres fans. The team is not going to camp with Derek Roy and Tim Connolly at center. That alone has to give you a good feeling. And who was the number two center going into camp last year when Buffalo was considered a legitimate contender? Oh yea, a guy who never played the position in the NHL, Ville Leino. The third liner? The same Paul Gaustad who played 38 postseason games for the Sabres and had ZERO GOALS. The Sabres are in far better shape this year than a year ago.
Whether you want to believe it or not, there is serious depth at the center position. Time will prove that it is not a position of weakness, but of strength.
So, next time you are searching through team rosters for possible trade candidates to play center, have fun playing fantasy hockey, because that is all it will amount to. The Sabres need to look no further than within the organization for their answers at center.