Time Has Run Out For Some Sabres

Updated: May 22, 2011

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 while everyone has their opinion on which direction the franchise should go this summer.

Is this the year the Sabres 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.

I will be giving you a preview into 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 franchise 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.

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 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 bona-fide veteran presence via free agency to compliment Tyler Myers.

As for the remaining vets on the UFA side of things, I believe Patrick Lalime’s time is up here in Buffalo, despite what Ryan Miller may have to say about it. Also, I don’t see Rob Niedermayer joining the team next season, despite a solid postseason performance.

As for Mike Grier, my opinion is split. I love his passion for the game and leadership he brings to the table but I’m pretty sure a snail could skate faster than Grier and I think it is very fair to question his ability to even play on a fourth line in the NHL anymore. However, Grier 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 the Sabres are 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. Stafford 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 2.

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 the Sabres do tie that money into Stafford though, I think they will need to unload another of their expensive wingers to compensate — such as Brad Boyes ($4M/yr) or Jason Pominville ($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 that all of the RFA’s 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 that they may have themselves a goalie of the future in the Jhonas Enroth. A great case could be made that without Enroth, the Sabres wouldn’t have made the playoffs with Miller suffering the injury. Enroth 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 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 Gerbe 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 Morrisonn in the mix for next year along with 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 while filling in for injured Sabres D-men.

Weber is a guy that I really like even though his play against the Flyers was mediocre at best. He is a guy I see lining up as a top-4 defenseman with the Sabres for years to come. I also love the physicality Weber 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 defenseman 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 Sabres Hockey Central 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.

*This post was also featured on thehockeywriters.com.

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  1. Matt

    May 29, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    The goal is to win a cup now but everyone wants to just play rookies and guys like Sekera on Defense. Check out the teams that win cups and the talent level they have, they don't have a guy like Paul Gaustad playing 19 mins per game two years in a row in the playoffs. What a joke the talent level on buffalo is right now. Darcy once said "You don't make a trade just to make the fans happy". I have an idea, how about make a trade to win a cup? This team will not win a cup with the current defense we have now, Allstar Miller needs way more help because he is looking average at best.

  2. Gary

    May 25, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    Only McCormick should be retained from among the UFA's, opening up $9.2 M in cap space. I'd keep Derek Roy as my #2 C,and restart trade talks with Colorado for Paul Stastny. At the trade deadline, supposedly, the deal was Gausted and Butler for Stastny. However, any trade with Colorado MUST have Ryan O'Reilly coming with Stastny. O'Reilly is a solid #4 center who's a tireless worker,ala Gerbe, and would fit nicely with Kaleta and McCormick. Luke Adam becomes the #3 center,and the issue then becomes the wings. Ennis,Vanek, and Gerbe are keepers, so Boyes,Stafford,Pommy,and Hecht are trade material. I'd target rising young guys, as Latandresse of Minnesota,or Pacioretty of Montreal. Both are big, tough, and also tireless workers……On D, a solid vet like Wizniewski would settle down a scrambly bunch. Weber,Myers,Gragnani and Leopold are the keepers,with Butler,Sekera,and Morrisonn available for trade. Only McNabb and Drew Schiestel have near future potential with the Sabres. Any hope for Persson or Brennan is long gone. They too should be trade throw-ins,just to free salary. In goal,it's Miller until Enroth surpasses him (two years).Then a trade of Miller could fetch picks or another blooming star in 2014…..Darcy should have been kicked to the curb years ago,but for the ability to hide his signing errors,or trade malaise,in the Golisano fiscal nightmare.

  3. I Know More Than You

    May 23, 2011 at 9:48 PM

    A. Stafford scored in Game 2 in the Flyers series, but I don't disagree with your overall point. He sucked and, while he showed great potential this season, he still has the potential to be a flash in the pan and is certainly not worth $4+ million.

    B. Butler played poorly against the Flyers? What series were you watching. Yes he made mistakes, but he was averaging 26+ min per game. With that much ice time you're bound to give the puck away once. Plus Sekera is horrible. I don't think he knows what team he plays for half the time given his horrendous turnovers in our own zone. With Monty and his stupid penalties gone, Grags will step in and give a boost to the PP.

    C. The only players I care about keeping are Weber, Gerbe and Enroth. The rest can go as far as I'm concerned.

    • kmf418

      May 23, 2011 at 11:35 PM

      I can't agree less with you on any of this. And Stafford did score in Game 7, not Game 2.

      Chris Butler was just atrocious in that series. I don't care how much ice time you have, you can't be giving up the puck like that.

      So you're willing to let Vanek, Miller, Roy and Myers leave? I understand all the hype about Enroth. He has shown us tremendous upside, but Miller has already proved what he can do.

      • Josh

        May 26, 2011 at 4:58 PM

        No. Myers and Boyes had the only Sabres goals in Game 7. Stafford didn't score. I don't remember exactly which game he did, but it wasn't Game 7.

    • Brandon

      May 24, 2011 at 12:18 AM

      So, aside from Butler, you agree with everything that was stated? Clearly the Sabres need to be cautious not to overpay Stafford like they have with the rest of their top forwards, but by no means does a player "suck" when they score 30 goals and in an abbreviated season no less. If they can lock him up for about $3M (which is what the Isles signed Grabner to, should be a similar deal) then it is worth every penny keeping Stafford on the team. As for Butler, I'm not sure which season you watched but the dude looked lost 90% of the time. You'll be lucky if he turns out to be a decent 5 or 6 D-man in the NHL. He just doesn't have it. The playoffs are all about who makes less mistakes, the mistakes Butler made just can't happen on a contending team. If you're going to knock Sekera on his turnovers then there's no way you can back Butler. Butler was far worse on a much more consistent basis. You can go lock up Butler on your team, and I'll go get a competent D-man on mine and see how each fares. Guarantee it wouldn't pan out well for you.

  4. Junior

    May 23, 2011 at 3:16 PM

    Mark Pysyk is going to be like 99% of the other first round pick defensemen we have, they are average at best, he doesn't have a scoring ability so you might as well call him a butler clone. Dennis Persson is the worst defensemen I've ever seen, when I watched him live he had to play forward he was so bad and he is softer than mink fur. There is no way Spezza will be traded to Buffalo, why would we want him? He is a 7 million dollar floater, if I'm going to bring in a 7 million dollar center then why not sign Richards or work a trade for Statsny? The bad news is Darcy has over paid so many guys it will be hard to move them, Pominville makes the same amount of money or more than guys like Hossa. Darcy always says "no trades are out there", that is because no GM wants to pick up his trash.

  5. Jeff

    May 23, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    Connolly will never re-sign here. he's as fed up with Buffalo as they are of him. and his ego will simply not allow him to sign for that little. a new scene will be the only thing that could help him. Stafford, as far as i can see, has done nothing but disappear when someone is needed to step up. could it be that what he needs is a premier center to set him up? maybe. but do you really want them spending $5mil/yr for 5 years on him to find out? i don't. trade him. see if someone will grab Pommer, or Boyes. do SOMETHING with Hecht (buyout or trade.) all three of those guys are fine but they do not play to their contracts. grossly overpaid. for all of Sekera's O, he mitigates it by being a turnover nightmare. trade. Butler? eh. i like the idea of packaging them with Staff for something. send Morrison to the minors. also, with our forwards so alike (skilled but small) am i the only one who thinks you package Ennis and his potential in a trade for a shot at someone like Brooks Laich or the like?

    • Bill

      May 24, 2011 at 7:43 PM

      ennis for brooks laich….really?

  6. Liam

    May 23, 2011 at 1:56 PM

    Pysyk seems to be the best D prospect we have. We should integrate him like we did to Myers. Get rid of Stafford in a packaged deal with Boyes, Sekera, and a 1st and you could get Spezza and a 3rd.
    Or send it to Denver for Stats.

  7. aquta

    May 22, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    Dennis Persson is NOT an outstanding defensive prospect. He likely will not even be resigned. Drew Schiestel, TJ Brennan, Brayden McNabb and Mark Pysyk are the only prospect D-men with any chance of making the team next year. In my opinion Schiestel is the only one with any real chance and since he's returning from injury and has yet to play in the NHL he'll be back in the minors to start the season much like Gragnani this season.

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