The collapse of the Buffalo Sabres has been like a train wreck: so awful you just can't look away.
Buffalo was projected to be one of the better teams in the NHL this season and a lock for being a playoff team. Instead, coming out of the All-Star break, they are tied for dead last.
With the Sabres in the basement, it's obvious general manager Darcy Regier has failed. From signing Villie Leino and Christian Ehrhoff to ridiculous long-term contracts, to failing to move worn-out players like Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad, Regier's moves have been unsuccessful.
Amidst the egregious screw-ups, one has been largely overlooked: Regier's trade for defenseman Robyn Regehr; a highly lauded move which has turned into a bust.
The once great stay-at-home tough guy is now a worn-out shell of what he once was in Calgary. He's still tough and he's still a stand-up leader, but his already below-average speed and skating ability are all but gone. Essentially, the deal has turned into a repeat of the 2007 decision to acquire defenseman Craig Rivet and 2010 choice to pick up Shaone Morrisonn. Both busts.
By the end of Rivet's time in Buffalo, he was a healthy scratch. Morrisonn is currently in the AHL. Despite his failures with washed-up stay-at-home defenseman, the Sabres' GM went to the well again acquiring Regehr.
Regier made the deal to excite the fan base while nabbing a veteran who could presumably teach 21-year-old former Calder trophy winner Tyler Myers and other defensive prospects some toughness.
"We have a lot of young 'D' in our system," Regier said in an interview with NHL Network shortly after the trade. "We've drafted a lot of defenseman. They are developing and as they come up they need that guidance. He will be a stablizing influence, and leadership is critical to young defenseman."
It's impossible to tell whether Regehr's presence is paying dividends for younger players, but Myers' play has not improved. In fact, it's regressed. Myers has rarely shown the type of grit the Sabres hoped he would develop.
Whether the intangibles are paying off or not is hard to say. The cold hard facts, however, paint Regehr as a failure of impressive proportions. Goals Versus Threshold currently ranks Regehr as the 10th worst defenseman in the NHL. He's scored two points in 43 games and is minus-13.
How bad is that? Here are some fun facts to illustrate:
Eight goalies have more points
206 defensemen have more points
265 defensemen have a better plus-minus
115 defensemen play more shifts per game
123 defensemen average more playing time
187 defensemen have at least one goal
197 defenseman have at least three assists
Only 39 defensemen have bigger cap hits
To refresh on the details, Regehr was dealt to Buffalo along with Ales Kotalikwho is currently playing in Europeand a second-round draft pick for defenseman Chris Butler and center Paul Byron.
Regehr has a $4 million cap hit. Butler has a $1.25 million hit. Regehr is also under contract for next year.
Butler currently has 11 points and is plus-4 (if you subtract one minus-7 game, he'd be plus-11). He's also only 25-years-old, while Regehr is 31 going on 45.
Make no mistake, Butler is no superstar. But he has often been on the team's top pairing with Jay Bouwmeester. He also ranks 15th on Awad's "most improved players" list.
Butler's time in Buffalo was rocky. In 2009-10, he had a minus-15 rating with a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender behind him. Last season, he began the year as Mr. Healthy Scratch, but was put back into the lineup after Shaone Morrisonn was, well, Shaone Morrisonn.
Down the stretch, however, Butler played well, earning himself the role as Myers' partner in the playoffs and finishing with an even rating.
Simply put: for $1.25 million, he was at very least worth keeping for a steal of a price.
An oft-made argument for Regehr is that stats don't tell the entire storythat his job is not to score. While that may have been true at times throughout his career, the Sabres badly need scoring. They rank in the bottom five in the NHL in goals. In the past, Regehr has scored a little. He managed 21 points in 2006-07 with very little ice time during the power play. Now when he's on the ice, there's essentially zero chance he'll create a goal.
When in the offensive zone, Regehr not only does not create, he also allows the opposition to start rushes of their own. His lack of speed often forces him to drop back into the neutral zone early on "50/50 pucks" that a quicker defenseman likely could have kept in the offensive zone.
His failure to keep the puck in is demonstrated in his Relative Corsi of -19.0, ranking dead last among Sabres regulars. The team's Corsi when he's off the ice is 3.8 and -15.2 when he is on the ice. That is by far the worst ratio on the team.
Offensive zone starts are no excuse either. Regehr's O-zone start percentage is a fairly pedestrian 45.8 percent and his even-strength ice time is 16 minutes. Both numbers would limit offense a touch, but not eliminate it.
In Regehr's defense, his Relative Corsi Quality of Competition is the highest on the Sabres. He's oftenif not alwaysfacing the opponents' top two lines. However, Regehr's Corsi Rel QoC is 1.079. Butler's is 1.809. In other words, Regehr may be facing tough competition, but Butler is facing tougher opponents and performing much better.
Another aspect of the Regehr-to-Buffalo deal is a second round draft pick. It's possible whomever the Sabres draft with that pick could turn out to be more beneficial long term than Regehr. However, second round picks rarely turn into impact players.
Out of 30 players drafted in the second round in 2006, only eight have played more than 100 games in the NHL and only one has more than 50 goals. In 2007, only five currently have more than 100 games and only one has more than 50 goals. And in 2008, only three have played 50 games or more and one has more than 10 goals.
Certainly, those numbers don't count goalies like Jacob Markstrom and Jhonas Enroth who were taken in the second round and there are plenty still in the minors on the edge of making it. But the point is, finding a quality starter in the second round is pretty difficult. Between 2006-2008, the only quality starters drafted in the second round have been Milan Lucic, Wayne Simmonds, P.K. Subban, Derek Stepan, Nikolai Kuleman, Travis Hamonic, and Luke Adam.
In other words, a second-round pick has little chance to become better than Butler. Had it been a first round pick, it could be looked at as a quality deal. Of 30 players picked in 2008, 16 have already played more than 100 games and four have more than 100 points.
It's hard to say how much better Buffalo would be with Butler instead of Regehr. There's a good chance the Sabres would still be in last place in the Eastern Conference. And his presence hasn't been all bad. Regehr has been a fairly solid penalty killer. Then again, $4 million cap hit for a "solid penalty killer" on the 21st-ranked penalty kill in the NHL is pretty bad.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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