As we await Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, Sabres fans should be paying close attention to what’s going on within the New York Islanders organization lately.
Yeah, that’s right, I said the Islanders.
How many of you would have thought I was crazy at the beginning of the year had I said the Sabres should model some aspects of their 2011 offseason based on the moves the Islanders made? I probably would have had to smack myself as well. But I’m here to tell you that Long Island is where it’s at when were talking Drew Stafford and the controversial contract negotiations with the former 13th overall draft-pick.
On Wednesday, the Islanders announced they have agreed to terms on a back-loaded five-year, $14 million deal with RFA forward Kyle Okposo. It is this deal, along with the five-year, $15 million contract the team handed out to fellow RFA and Calder nominee Michael Grabner a few weeks back that will likely influence the Sabres as they begin negotiations with their own RFA.
The reason why these two deals will probably impact the way the Sabres go about re-signing Stafford is simple, really. All three are young, and have put up similar numbers in their most recent seasons. Like Stafford, Kyle Okposo missed a big chunk of games this past season due to injury (Stafford played in 62 games, Okposo in 38) but managed to put up impressive numbers in the games he did play. And while Stafford’s 2010/11 stat line is a bit more impressive over his stretch of games, Okposo still scored 20 points (5G 15A) in those 38 games he played in. Okposo’s deal is relevant to the Sabres and Stafford as it shows the team is still willing to hand out nearly $3M/year to a forward who recently suffered a major injury. Unlike Stafford, however, Okposo has shown much promise in his first few seasons in the NHL. He scored 39 points (18G 21A) in 65 games his rookie campaign and broke out in his second season, posting 52 points (19G 33A) in 80 games, where Stafford hadn’t played up to expectations until this past season. Now, Okposo has garnered talk of gaining the captaincy on the Islanders for next season while many Sabres fans are trying to figure out if Stafford is the real deal or a big first-round bust.
Even more comparable to Stafford in 2010/11 was Grabner. Stafford never put up the crazy numbers Grabner did inhis rookie season but the two may be linked together for many years to come if their scoring ways continue. Both are former first-round picks that hadn’t quite met the expectations that come with being drafted so high until this season. Grabner was claimed off of waivers from the Florida Panthers just before the start of the 2010/11 season and is now with his third NHL organization after being drafted by the Canucks 14th overall in 2006. 52 points later and the Panthers are now kicking themselves for jumping to such a hasty judgement of the Austian-born sniper. Grabner’s numbers (34G 18A) more directly resemble Stafford’s (31G 21A) of this past year than Okposo’s so I would think the Sabres will offer him a deal that more closely resembles Grabner’s contract.
GM Darcy Regier stated during an interview on Wednesday that he has been in talks with Drew Stafford and his agent recently but calls them “very preliminary”. My guess is Stafford will command a bit more than Grabner and Okposo given that he is a bit older and closer to the prime of his career. I would expect the Stafford deal to be around the same length — four to five years — as Grabner’s and Okposo’s and to be anywhere between $3M-$4M per. Anything more than that is overpaying in my opinion. The Sabres obviously need to be very careful not to overpay for Stafford like they have in the past with Jason Pominville ($5.4M) after his breakout season.
I remain skeptical that Stafford will be able to continue to perform at the rate he did this past season. Nearly half of his goals came in just six games this season. Stafford is a big forward without much speed to speak of and often loses his size advantage when matched up against bigger, tougher forwards (ie Milan Lucic). I feel as though many opposing teams just simply paid no attention to Stafford and allowed him to hangout around the net for much of the season, enabling him to score many of his goals. When teams finally began to see Stafford’s name in the box score night after night, they keyed in on him, leading to his disappearance near the end of the season — especially against the Flyers in the playoffs. Still though, you really can’t dispute that 31 goals in just 62 games is an impressive stat, whether you like Stafford or not.
So does Stafford stay a Sabre? I believe he does. Should he stay a Sabre? The jury still remains on that one.
Personally, I find it intriguing to include Stafford in a trade to lure a center (a la Paul Stastny or Jason Spezza) to Buffalo if one cannot be found via free-agency as he is probably the Sabres’ most valuable, movable piece next to Derek Roy. Only time will tell if the Sabres will be willing to make a move that bold.
If Regier’s past business methods are any indication, the value for players drafted within the organization are much more valuable to the Sabres than anyone they could bring in. Will Stafford pan out? Who knows. But if he obtains his inevitable raise with the Sabres, he had better continue to put up 30-goal seasons for years to come, for Regier’s sake.
Follow Brandon on Twitter for more Sabres coverage @GoldSchlager23