With the Western Conference Semi-Finals now in the books, the NHL’s final four is set in stone. And while the remaining 26 franchises who weren’t as fortunate as their counterparts witness the conclusion of the postseason from the tee box, their respective fans are left with nothing to look forward to — aside from viewing what is likely to be some great hockey — other than what looks to be an eventful summer.
Since Terry Pegula purchased the Buffalo Sabres back on February 22, Buffalo hockey fans have been in an uproar over the anticipation of the first offseason under the new regime. With Pegula’s seemingly bottomless pockets comes endless possibilities and wishful thinking for Sabres fans everywhere and everyone has their opinion on which direction the franchise should go this summer. Is this the year they finally reel in the big fish in the free-agent pond to lace up his skates in Hockey Heaven? Will Darcy Regier pull off a blockbuster deal that shakes up the entire NHL? Only time will tell. I’m simply here to lay out multiple options for you Sabres fans to ponder over the next few weeks as well as impose my personal opinion on the matter.
After discussing in my previous post some possibilities the Sabres have going into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, I now give you part two to my three-part preview of the Sabres’ offseason. Here you will get my take on which free-agent players — both restricted and unrestricted — I feel the franchise would be best suited to either lock up, or banish from the Blue and Gold for all eternity (or at least the remainder of their hockey careers).
Before we begin, let me reiterate a few key points to be sure everyone is clear on free agency and how it works. After the 2011 Entry Draft is complete, each team has a certain window to negotiate contracts with their potential free-agents. There are two kinds of free-agents. Unrestricted free-agents, or UFA’s, are players whose contract has expired and are at least 27 years of age or have played in the league for seven or more years. Restricted free-agents, or RFA’s, are players whose entry-level contract has expired and do not meet either of the above requirements. Come July 1, if they remain unsigned by their current team, UFA’s are able to sign with whichever club they please without the compensation of that club’s draft picks. RFA’s however remain the property of their previous club until either a new contract is agreed upon with that club or another club or arbitration is requested. If signed by another club, that team will be required to compensate the player’s previous club with draft choices based upon the salary agreed upon in the player’s contract. Pretty simple, right? Good.
With that said and only 12 players currently under contract for 2011/12, the Sabres have their fair share of work cut out for them. Currently the Sabres have nine UFA’s and seven RFA’s to deal with before they can set out and sign a player from outside the organization. Below I put together a chart of this offseason’s free agents for the Sabres.
Headlining the UFA group is veteran and playoff ghost Tim Connolly.
Connolly has put together eight up-and-down seasons with the Sabres after being drafted fifth overall back in 1999 by the New York Islanders and while that might sound pretty, the oft-injured center has played in more than 70 games in those seasons only twice. Furthermore, Connolly may as well not have even been on the ice during the Sabres’ playoff runs in 2007, 2010 and this past series against the Flyers as he has compiled a measly 12 points in 30 games over that span — none of which were goals. The popular opinion on Connolly around Buffalo is to kick him to the curb. While I’m not the biggest fan of his, I don’t think it would be smart for the Sabres to dismiss him that easily. Obviously with a previous cap hit of $4.5M, the man was severely overpaid given his injury risk and postseason performances (or lack there of). However, while he has not lived up to expectations offensively, Connolly has emerged as a true penalty kill specialist for the Sabres on a unit that rendered the Flyers’ power play unit irrelevant until Game 7. At the right price, I feel like bringing Connolly back to center the third line and penalty kill unit isn’t such a bad idea. I think if the Sabres signed him to a 1-year deal worth $1.5-$2M it could pan out to be a nice steal.
Defenseman Steve Montador is another name that stands out among the list. Montador has enjoyed a nice two-year stay with the Sabres and has been a solid contributor on the blue line over the span. He has played in 151 games in a blue and gold sweater and put up 49 points in those games with a plus/minus of +16 this past season, not bad for a D-man. The real question marks began to pop up after his constant turnovers and ill-advised plays cost the Sabres big time in the first round against Philly. Now the question remains, while Monty has been fairly reliable during the regular season, is he really a top-4, or even a top-6 defenseman on a championship team? With the young influx of talent on the blue line coming up from Portland, I don’t believe he is. I feel the $1.5M Montador would take up could be better used signing one of those young RFA’s or bringing in a bonafide veteran presence via free agency to compliment Tyler Myers.
As for the remaining vets on the UFA side of things, I believe Patty Lalime’s time is up here in Buffalo despite what Ryan Miller may have to say about it and despite his solid postseason performance; I don’t see Rob Niedermayer joining the team again next season either. As for Mike Grier, my opinion is split. I love the passion for the game and leadership Grier brings to the table but I’m pretty sure a snail could skate faster and I think it is very fair to question his ability to even play on a fourth line in the NHL anymore. However, he always gives it his all come playoff time. If Grier decides he does in fact want to play one more year in the NHL, I wouldn’t mind seeing the Sabres hang on to him and tuck him away as a healthy scratch or down in Portland until there is a void on the starting lineup needed to be filled.
For the Sabres, it’s within that RFA list where things get a bit tricky.
The name everyone here in Buffalo is talking about is Drew Stafford. It remains to be seen which player we’re going to get out of Stafford. Whether he continues to fail to live up to his 13th-overall selection back in 2004 or if he is able to consistently become a 30-goal scorer in this league remains to be seen. One thing is certain though, Stafford will command a raise this offseason likely to resemble more of the latter.
Having missed 20 games this season, Stafford still managed to put up 52 points (31G 21A) and looked as though he is finally beginning to fill out his shoes. He all but threw away the confidence he gained in Sabres fans during the season though when he failed to show up against the Flyers, posting only three points (1G 2A) in the 7-game series, scoring that lone goal in garbage time in Game 7 after defeat was already imminent for the Sabres.
Now I’m left wondering if we have yet another playoff choker here who will get a handsome raise and fail to come through when he is needed most, like he will be expected to do. If the Sabres brass are high on Stafford and see him as the 30-goal scorer we all want him to be, he will be rewarded with a deal around $5M/year — which would be fair as long as he produces. If they are not sold, trade him. Some other team has to be willing to buy high and who knows, I think it’s very conceivable the Sabres could incorporate him into a package deal for a top center like Paul Stastny or Jason Spezza. If they do tie that money into Stafford though, I think the Sabres will need to unload another of their expensive wingers to compensate — such as Brad Boyes ($4M/yr) or Jason Pomminville ($5.3M/yr). This way the Sabres will have the cap space needed to reel in that top-line center they desperately need as I feel depth down the middle is much more important in today’s NHL than on the wings. You just can’t have nearly $20M tied up in your top-4 wingers and have nothing at center to show for it.
Obviously all of the RFA’s on the list are important to the Sabres’ future and will all likely obtain roster spots if brought back for 2011/12. The problem is, all of them will now count against the cap since their entry deals have expired which could hamper the Sabres ability to make other big moves. Jhonas Enroth will obviously be kept after his late season relief appearances for Miller showed the Sabres they may have themselves a goalie of the future in the Jhonas Brother. A great case could be made that without Enroth, the Sabres don’t make the playoffs with Miller suffering the injury. He will be back no doubt, probably to the tune of $1M-$1.5M.
Nathan Gerbe deserves a spot on the team next year as well following his second-half emergence where he scored 14 of his 16 goals after January 20. In the playoffs, the small-bodied 5’6″ Gerbe showed plenty of unexpected grit as well, winning over the hearts of many Sabres fans. He is one of the players who are likely to be around Buffalo for a while and play a big role in the sabres future. Look for him to get around $1.5M-$2M, which is well deserved for now.
The remaining RFA’s on the list are all blue liners. This young core of Andrej Sekera, Chris Butler, Mike Weber and Marc-Andre Gragnani all represent the future of the Sabres’ defensive core. However, with Myers, Jordan Leopold and possibly Shaone “don’t call me Shawn” Morrisonn in the mix for next year and other cap considerations, one of these guys may have to go. Gragnani will certainly be locked up after he led the team in points (7) during the playoffs after filling in for injured Sabres D-men. Weber is a guy I really like even though his play against Philly was mediocre at best. He is a guy I see lining up as a top-4 D-man for the Sabres for years to come and love the physicality he brings to the table. He shouldn’t be going anywhere.
So that leaves Sekera and Butler.
Sekera played phenomenal down the stretch for the Sabres, scoring 13 points in just nine games at one point. The same can’t be said for Butler. For a while it looked as though Butler was about to team up with Myers to form a shutdown pair for the Sabres but he was in my opinion the team’s worst D-man down the stretch and especially versus the Flyers — a series that was lost due to inconsistent defensive play. Honestly, with the outstanding defensive prospects the Sabres have coming up though the ranks over the next year or two (Dennis Persson, Brayden McNabb, Mark Pysyk), I feel either one of these guys are expendable.
Why not throw Sekera or Butler in a package deal with a Stafford and a few picks or prospects to bring in a big name forward or provide much needed depth up front? It makes much more sense to me than does keeping them all to see what they turn in to.
The bottom line is this: the Buffalo Sabres are simply just a few pieces away (first line center, veteran defenseman) from being serious Stanley Cup contenders. There was never a better time for a big money owner to step in, and now is the opportunity for the Sabres to show the league they aren’t to be taken lightly.
Be sure to check back in to The Hockey Writers for part three of my offseason preview where I will discuss those missing pieces and which free agents the Sabres should bring in come July 1. Please feel free to play some armchair GM with me and leave a comment on your preference as to what you think the Sabres should accomplish this summer. I love to hear what everyone’s opinion on the matter is, I find it very intriguing. Just remember, my opinion is better than yours. Until next time folks.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @GoldSchlager23 for the latest in Sabres and hockey news.
*All cap hit numbers via Capgeek.com