The end of an era in Buffalo sports is fast approaching.
The Buffalo Sabres certainly will be one of the league's busiest teams before the trade deadline on March 5, with numerous options for contending teams to try and boost their rosters.
But one player's departure from Buffalo really will mark a major change in the team's identity.
While forwards Matt Moulson and Steve Ott will certainly get looks from the scouts who flocked to First Niagara Center this week to kick the tires before making their bids in the Sabres' pending fire sale, it's goaltender Ryan Miller's departure that really will be the one that fans will remember.
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Miller, who has been with the Sabres since being picked in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL Draft, established himself as the Sabres' starting goaltender after the 2004-05 lockout and brought the previously-struggling team to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final his first full season with the Sabres. After another strong season and another Eastern Finals appearance, Miller had the Sabres in contention during the prime of his career, with the fall out only beginning in 2012.
Buffalo fans also enjoyed his strong performance in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- unfortunately for local fans, the most meaningful hockey since he's played since the Sabres lost in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals -- and also were hoping he would see more action than just one game this month in Sochi for USA Hockey.
Although there have been rumors surrounding Miller's long-term future in Western New York since last summer, with the unrestricted free agent set to hit the market on July 1 and the team reportedly shopping him around the league all season long, there was the glimmer of hope that with the new leadership of Pat LaFontaine and new GM Tim Murray that the 33-year-old would be in the team's long term plans.
But when Murray spoke to reporters Tuesday night in the press box before the Sabres vs. Hurricanes game, it sounded closer than ever that the move finally would be made as the NHL returned from its Olympic hiatus.
"The route we're looking at is to get value for him, to put him in a position to succeed," Murray told reporters. "By trading Ryan to a contender, a good team that's lacking only his position, I think that we've certainly not done a disservice to him and helped the organization in our own right.
"Our goal right now I think, on both sides, is to pursue a proper trade."
Of course, while the Sabres are mired in last place in the entire NHL, it's hardly Miller's fault. In fact, if anything, he's kept this bunch of Sabres from being among the NHL's all-time worst teams. Of Buffalo's 17 wins this year, he has 15 of them. He's been spectacular at times with little support, posting a .924 save percentage behind a team that is allowing nearly 36 shots a game on the netminder.
Currently mired on a losing team, Miller likely will get moved and get a chance to play somewhere for a Cup this spring for the first time since the Sabres were bounced in the first round by Philadelphia in 2011, and try and be able to make a difference on a team needing goaltending.
While the team apparently has been looking to move their biggest trade chip for a while now, this season's reduced cap has made it a bit more difficult, as early on, teams who could afford to take on Miller's cap hit - $6,250,000 in the final year of his deal - weren't exactly in contention and didn't need to rent a goaltender. As the season progressed and more teams could arrange him under the cap, Miller played himself onto the U.S. Olympic team and perhaps turned in the most impressive season of his career considering the talent around him.
While there are other goaltenders on the market who could potentially help a team, none has put in a season like Miller.
Now, with only a quarter of the season - and player salaries - left, it appears that the Sabres will finally move Miller, certainly looking to cash in before his trade value expires at 3 pm on March 5th, looking for some young players or picks in return.
For Miller, it's also seemingly a logical conclusion to his lengthy career in Buffalo with a lengthy rebuilding project on tap.
"It's going to be tough to correlate seeing what they're going to do, what they can do and what I might need to do with my career," he told reporters. "I don't want to close anything off right now, but I know they're kind of looking around for opportunities. That's probably the best for everybody."
Miller is the lasting face of the Sabres team that went to consecutive Eastern Conference Finals just out of the lockout, and now with Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Brian Campbell, Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek all long gone, the longest-tenured Sabres' time apparently is down to just days - if not hours.
While players and coaches are still aware of the business side of the National Hockey League, it's a difficult time in Buffalo. Even the Sabres' head coach Ted Nolan seemed a bit down when speaking to reporters Tuesday night following what could be Miller's final home game before the inevitable seemingly happens. Miller backed up Jhonas Enroth in Wednesday night's overtime win against Boston.
The Sabres have just two games left before the deadline - one at home Friday against San Jose - and figure to be a much younger club when they return March 9 from a three-game road swing.
And while the Sabres will look to rebuild, the last piece of the team that helped put hockey back on the map in Western New York certainly will get a chance to lift the Cup this spring. And sadly for Buffalo fans, it won't be for the Sabres.