Apr 26, 2013; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek (26) brings the puck up ice as New York Islanders center Casey Cizikas (53) pursues during the second period at the First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Miller may have to go, but Thomas Vanek must stay

After a shootout win to end another disappointing season in Buffalo, Ryan Miller has more and more sounded like a man on his way out. We won’t know for sure though – possibly until the NHL draft is over. However, it does seem like the veteran goaltender isn’t too eager to be part of a potentially lengthy rebuild. Conversely, the Sabres probably aren’t interested in paying a goaltender six million dollars annually on a team not built to win the Cup in the next year or two. So it seems the two are on a course for a divorce.

There shouldn’t be hard feelings on either side as Ryan Miller gave fans some great years and he was a consummate professional through most of it. However, Sabres fans shouldn’t get too antsy when it comes to dumping veterans in favor of a youth movement. If they think that winger Thomas Vanek can be replaced as easily as Miller, they’ll have another thing coming.

It seems like only yesterday the Sabres were desperately matching an offer sheet from Edmonton to retain the services of Thomas Vanek. The 7 year $50 million offer sent most fans into a stupor. Vanek was unproven at that point, and he struggled with inconsistency through much of the first couple years of his contract, but still he never scored fewer than 60 points in any full season he played (he put up 53 pts in 71 games in 09-10) and never scored fewer than 26 goals while hitting the 40 goal mark twice in a Buffalo uniform. His expectations were higher because the entire team’s expectations were higher. In retrospect, Thomas Vanek was by far the best player on what was mostly a listless and mediocre club after their 2007 run to the Conference Finals.

Whatever issues with consistent effort Vanek had early in his career have been rectified. His only real issue is that sometimes he can be so hard on himself that he seems to alienate his teammates. Still, he’s this team’s best and most productive forward by a mile. The way he bulls to the front of the net and puts a stick on anything on goal is something you simply can’t coach. The Sabres have some nice offensive prospects and young players, but no one can do in front of the net what Vanek can do. He’s become a strong veteran leader in the locker room. The Sabres need to re-sign Vanek before they get too tempted to go shopping him around for more picks who likely can’t match what he can do as he looks to enjoy another 5-7 years of prime production.

The Sabres need to sign Vanek and trade Miller because of the simple factor of replaceability. The Buffalo Sabres have Jhonas Enroth, David Leggio, and Matthew Hackett all at some stage of development very near to starter. Are any of them as good as Miller? No. At least not that we know of. Ryan Miller has played 500 games in a Sabres uniform while the second guy on that list is Enroth with 50. The real issue is the cap number. Is getting Ryan Miller’s .915 career save percentage worth $6M/yr when Enroth has the same exact number through 50 games? It’s a gamble, but it’s one that saves the team money that they could otherwise invest in their woeful blue line. Good blue lines make better goalies.

With one year left on Thomas Vanek’s contract that once seemed gargantuan and unfathomable, the Buffalo Sabres need to turn around and try to sign it again. If they don’t, they’ll spend the next few years trying to replace Vanek’s production. If they keep Miller, then so be it. He’s the best goalie this team has. The Sabres will win more games with him in the lineup. But it likely won’t prove to be the difference. Goalies tend to be at their highest value when their salary is less cumbersome. Forwards on the other hand have no such value limitations. If the Sabres trade Vanek just because they want to go young, they will be a worse team not just next year, but for the next three to five years. You can’t replace guys who live and breath scoring points the way Vanek does. Even if they get a few more natural scorers, depth at the position is critical. Let’s hope the Sabres do the smart thing and value what’s most important going forward.

Cory Buck is a Staff Writer for Sabre Noise. You can comment below with any thoughts on the article or send them directly to his twitter @TheBuckMopsHere.

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