By Miguel Rodriguez
Another member of the core has left Hockey Heaven.
This departure was expected but the timing was quite sudden.
Roughly 14 hours after the Buffalo Sabres traded Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders in exchange for winger Matt Moulson, a 2014 first-round pick and 2015 second-round pick, Vanek's ex-teammates expressed some surprise he was no longer a member of the blue and gold yet at the same time were not totally stunned he was gone.
Everyone in Sabreland knew the situation. Vanek, one of the most prolific offensive players in franchise history, came into the year in the final season of a seven-year deal. He's set to become a free agent July 1. If he wanted to be part of the Sabres' project rebuild, he would've have signed a deal to stay here.
Instead, he has the opportunity to play with John Tavares and fellow Austrian countryman Michael Grabner on a team filled with young talent coming off a playoff appearance.
"There's been a big turnover," said forward Tyler Ennis, who has seen Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Paul Gaustad and Jochen Hecht either leave via trade or retire since joining the Sabres during the 2009-10 season. "It's tough to see a friend go but at the same time it was expected. He's a great player and we wish him well," Ennis said.
Added Sabres coach Ron Rolston: "This is a situation everyone knew would take place. It was just the timing was quicker than people would have thought.
"Obviously losing a good player that has meant so much to the organization over the years is tough. ... He certainly was a great person in the room for us and someone who produced. He will be missed. We wish him the best in terms of his goals. I know he wants to be on a team that can make a push for the Stanley Cup. That's a good goal of his. Hopefully he gets that."
Drew Stafford and veteran goalie Ryan Miller are the only remaining members of the vaunted core group of talent Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier opted to build around following the departures of Chris Drury and Daniel Briere on July 1, 2007.
The core had some moments, winning the 2009-10 Northeast Division title and making a thunderous second-half run to make the playoffs on the second to last day of the season in 2010-11, but the group will mostly be remember for what it didn't accomplsh as the Sabres have missed the playoffs four of the past six years.
That doesn't make it any easier to say good-bye to Vanek, though.
Vanek was one of the franchise's most productive players as he recorded 254 goals and 497 points in 598 career games after being drafted fifth overall in 2003. He's been a Sabre since the end of the 2004-05 lockout, earning a share of the captaincy prior to opening night along with Steve Ott. Ott will be the full-time captain now, with Christian Ehrhoff as the lone alternate.
"For him it was tough for him to leave us in that situation but I think he expected it at some point," said Ehrhoff, a good friend of Vanek who'd often hold conversations together in their native German dialect. Ehrhoff is from Germany, while German is the official language in Vanek's home country Austria.
"It's always eye-opening," defenseman Tyler Myers said of the trade. "It's a big move. He's been a big part of this organization. Whenever you see a guy go like that, it takes a while to settle in for sure."
Below are audio clips of Ron Rolston and Tyler Myers.