Right now – on February 12, 2015 – which team has the brighter future: the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Vancouver Canucks or the Buffalo Sabres.
The Canucks are tops of those three in the standings, sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference, 10 games to the happy side of .500. A playoff spot is far from guaranteed, but the prospects of advancing look solid.
The Leafs are scuffling, going 2-12-1 since firing head coach Randy Carlyle while slipping from the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference. They’re not scoring goals and they can’t keep the puck out of their own net either. It doesn’t take an advanced metrics guru to tell you that is bad.
As for the Sabres, they’re the worst team in the NHL, sporting a goal differential of -88 and just 35 points through 55 games. This season is a wash, but if you had the chance to ride with one of these three teams for the next 10-15 years, Buffalo is the smart bet and it’s not even close.
Wednesday afternoon, the Sabres pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade, acquiring embattled winger Evander Kane, defensemen Zach Bogosian and a goaltending prospect from the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for defensemen Tyler Myers, center Drew Stafford, two forward prospects and a first-round pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
It’s a win-win deal as Winnipeg rids themselves of a player that has been a distraction all season and collects a solid haul in return, while Buffalo adds a 23-year-old power forward that has already delivered a 30-goal season in the NHL. The most interesting part of the deal for Buffalo might be that Kane isn’t going to hit the ice for the Sabres this season, as he underwent shoulder surgery last week.
As teams like Toronto and Vancouver try to cobble together teams that can contend today while still trying to plan for the future, Buffalo took the “tear it down and start over” approach. They’ve made moves solely with an eye to the future and that has put them in a position to draft one of two legitimate franchise players available this in this year’s draft, Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.
Adding either of those playmakers to the young nucleus they’ve been assembling could have Buffalo back in the hunt sooner, rather than later and that’s something the Maple Leafs and Canucks need to consider.
The last few seasons in Vancouver have been a desperate attempt to make one last run at the Stanley Cup when they should have been focused on getting what they could for the players that carried them to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Bruins in the 2010-11 season.
They made a panic trade that sent Cory Schneider to New Jersey, botched the Roberto Luongo situation and then still went out and gave veteran Ryan Miller a three-year deal this past summer. While they wisely got what they could for oft-injured center Ryan Kesler, there stuck in the hockey equivalent of purgatory – good enough to creep into the playoffs, but not good enough to make any real noise.
Toronto’s situation is even worse. The prospect cupboard is nearly bare and there aren’t many pieces on the big club that would fetch the kind of return that helps sparks a turnaround. Tyler Bozak and Dion Phaneuf could be moved, but teams aren’t going to overpay to take them off Toronto’s hands.
Both teams need to consider following the Buffalo blueprint sooner rather than later.
Listen to any offer on every player and make the deals that are going to set your team up for success in the next 3-5 years. Holding on to Phil Kessel when the team is floundering and he can fetch a cache of picks and prospects doesn’t make sense. Same goes for refusing to move the Sedins if the right offer comes along.
The pressure to succeed is exceptionally high in both Toronto and Vancouver, but neither team is really doing that at the moment.
Difficult as it may be – for the organizations and their fans – these teams need to be stripped down to the bare bones in order to be built back up again.