Buffalo Sabres' Offseason Pt. One: Unrestricted and Restricted Free Agents

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Buffalo Sabres' Offseason Pt. One: Unrestricted and Restricted Free Agents
(Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

After the Buffalo Sabres finished off their second-straight disappointing season, managing partner Larry Quinn said the team would conduct a "thorough evaluation" to determine the reasoning for the team's downfall.

Just a week removed from that statement, it was announced that both General Manager Darcy Regier and Head Coach Lindy Ruff would be retained.

Now, weeks later, Sabres faithful are pondering what will happen next this offseason. It is obviously painful to watch the NHL Playoffs, especially when the team you root for isn't one of the 16 teams battling for Lord Stanley's Cup.

The Sabres should make plenty of offseason moves to ensure their fans improvement in the 2009-10 season. I mean, why not? I'm not saying the team needs to rebuild by any means, but last season after almost expectantly missing the playoffs after the Drury-Briere folly, Regier and Co. followed suit by having a pretty mediocre summer, trading for captain Craig Rivet.

Yes, Rivet was a decent addition. Heck, the team was reluctant enough to slap the "C" on his chest just weeks after his arrival.

And let's not forget how the front office reworked a few deals to keep core players around for years to come. Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Jochen Hecht, Paul Gaustad, and Daniel Paille all signed new deals a year ago. At the time we applauded their persistence to get deals done, and it seemed as though most fans were appreciative of a rather busy offseason.

This time around, the Sabres have a lot more work to do. They should not settle for minor changes. The team has missed the playoffs for two straight years since winning the Presidents' Trophy three seasons ago.

Regier has to make the decision on six unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents. Some easier decisions than others, obviously, but a busy offseason nonetheless. Also, fans are hoping "other" changes will be made, via trade, or by making additions through free agency, or promotions within the organization. 

Since this has been a very popular topic among you Bleacher Creatures, I decided I'd join in the guessing game.

I am going to try and be as realistic as possible, but also I will try to discuss all the possible scenarios the Sabres may be evaluating as we speak. In a three-part article, I will discuss the Sabres' free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, possible free agents the Sabres may target, possible players on the trade market, and also prospects within the organization, who may be on the brink of becoming stars in the NHL.

 

Unrestricted Free Agents

Maxim Afinogenov, 28, RW; 2008-09 salary: $3.5 million

Probably the easiest decision this offseason for the Sabres is to part ways with the Russian speedster. Just three years ago he led the team in points halfway through the season before a wrist fracture put him in the press box. Since then he has been more than a disappointment. He had just 48 points in 104 games in two seasons, and spent plenty of time as a healthy scratch during that time period.

Bon voyage, Maxim.

Andrew Peters, 28, LW; 2008-09 salary:$550,000

I read other day that every NHL team needs a fighter. Well, in the Sabres' case, Andrew Peters would be that guy right? He played 28 games last season averaging a little over four minutes of ice time and accumulating 80 PIMs.

This is probably as useless of hockey player I have ever seen. I have a hard time believing Peters even has a spot on any NHL team. The league has run out of room for the traditional goon. And besides, the Sabres should have plenty of guys who can fill the void in the fighting department. Craig Rivet and Paul Gaustad will do just fine.

Dominic Moore, 27, C; 2008-09 salary: $900,000

When Moore was acquired via trade from Toronto, most people, including me thought that he was going to be brought in as a rent-a-player. The Sabres acquired Moore late on deadline day for a second round pick acquired from an earlier trade involving Ales Kotalik and the Edmonton Oilers.

Moore had 41 points in Toronto before coming to Buffalo and many thought that he would come in and contribute in the points department. Well, in 18 games with the Sabres he was only able to record a goal and three assists.

It has been rumored upon his arrival that he was asking for a hefty raise in Toronto, which was one of the main reasons he was traded. Depending on what the Sabres do with some other players, it might be best to let Moore go.

He is a third-line center at best, and with guys like Gaustad, Adam Mair, and Matt Ellis already on the roster, there might not be any room for a player of Moore's caliber. But like I said, it depends on what the team does.

Matt Ellis, 26, LW-C; 2008-09 salary: $475,000

Ellis was one of the surprises this season after being picked up off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings. Ellis stepped in right away after some key injuries sidelined Gaustad and Jochen Hecht earlier in the year. Watching Ellis was a bit refreshing. He was one of those high motor guys that you knew was giving 110 percent for the logo on the front of his sweater. In 45 games, the fourth-liner finished with 12 points (7G, 5A).

Ellis is your traditional depth forward, and a guy that would be very cheap to keep around. But last season I became a little weary of the talent drop off between the top two lines and the bottom lines. The Sabres almost looked like they were running two fourth lines for the majority of the season.

I am not bashing on Ellis, but I think they were a little stacked with players of his talent level. Yes, guys like Ellis are much needed, but with Gaustad, Moore, Mair, Paile, Pat Kaleta, and even Nathan Paetsch on the roster, you kind of have to narrow that group down a bit, right? There's a 50/50 chance Ellis is a Sabre next season.

Teppo Numminen, 39, D; 2008-09 salary: $1.1 million

What can you say about Teppo? Such a great career. In 19 seasons he played almost 1400 games, recording 637 points. Everyone in the league was aware of Numminen's story coming in to last season.

He played a total of two games in 2007-08, spending most of his time recovering from his second heart surgery in as many years. At the start of last season, he was back and ready to go. He played the majority of the first half of the season, but after all-star break it seemed as though his age was catching up to him. Not only that but there was a young stud emerging on the Sabres' blue line by the name of Chris Butler. In 57 games, Numminen contributed 17 points (2G, 15A).

In all likelihood, the veteran defenseman has played his last game in a Sabres uniform. He has publicly stated he is unsure about a return next season, but said that if he did he would want to play in Buffalo. Chances are he will hang up the skates.

Jaroslav Spacek, 34, D; 2008-09 salary: $3.3 million

Out of all the unrestricted free agents the Sabres have to deal with this offseason, Spacek is the toughest decision. The Sabres' blue line struggled last year, and had a number of dumb mistakes and defensive-zone meltdowns. Not only did the Sabres have trouble in their own end, but they also had trouble moving the puck out of their zone.

Spacek signed a three-year deal just over $9 million a few seasons ago. He was brought to Buffalo not only to be a sound, physical defenseman, but also to contribute in the points department. He has been a mainstay on the point on the power-play for the Sabres, and his shot and passing ability has been a key attribute to an above-average unit the last three seasons.

Last season, Spacek recorded 45 points in 80 games, though he struggled earlier on in the season. He finished tied for fifth in points with Drew Stafford. In the last two seasons Spacek has totalled 44 points on the power-play alone.

One of the Sabres' biggest needs this offseason is on the blue line. The Sabres are in dire need of a big, physical, gritty defenseman, but also a puck-moving, offensive defenseman.

Depending on what Regier's plans are to bolster the defense, Spacek may be around next season at a rather reasonable price. At $3 to $3.5 million I think the Sabres could keep him around. If he can contribute 40 to 45 points, it may be worth it. If the Sabres do not re-sign him, they will need to fill the void he will leave on the power-play.

 

Restricted Free Agents

This is where the real fun begins. Well, sort of.

The real fun would be going out and signing or trading for different players, but that doesn't happen too often in Sabreland. The Sabres have tougher decisions regarding their restricted free agents.

Drew Stafford, 22, RW; 2008-09 salary: $984,000

The Sabres looked to Stafford last season to be one of the top point producers on the team. Early last season we were accustomed to seeing Stafford paired with Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy on the team's top line. His season started off very slowly, and was bounced around to various lines.

Like most of the Sabres last year, he struggled, and at times he went many games without scoring a goal. He was, however, very productive in the months of January and February, only to fall off the score sheet when the team needed him most.

Stafford was drafted 13th overall by the Sabres in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. The 6'1", 200-pound winger has great hands and play-making ability. He was inserted into the lineup early in his career in the 2006-07 season where he played 41 games and tallied 27 points. Just two season later he was playing on the top line.

Last year he reached the 20-goal mark for the first time in his career, finishing with 20 goals and 25 assists. His inconsistencies were as troublesome as some of the higher profiled players such as Vanek, Roy, and Jason Pominville.

Because of his potential, I see Stafford getting extended. Somewhere around a two-year, $5 million deal sounds sufficient. He has nowhere to go but up, especially playing alongside a player such as Vanek. He is capable of scoring 25 to 30 goals a year, while adding a physical aspect to his game. At $2.5 million per, that would be a bit of a bargain. But he has to perform.

Clarke MacArthur, 23, LW; 2008-09 salary: $522,000

MacArthur came out of the starting gates very quickly last season. In the first two months, MacArthur had six goals. But after a hot start, MacArthur went 17 games without finding the back of the net. This awful stretch forced Lindy Ruff to make him a healthy scratch on a few occasions.

He lacked the intensity and passion that was needed to play the game at a high level, and many, including his coach, questioned his motivation. This is MacArthur's biggest question mark.

MacArthur finished the season with a career-high 17 goals and 14 assists. He was bounced around anywhere from the fourth line to the top line, and towards the end of the year he was playing alongside Tim Connolly. MacArthur again went on a tear at the end of the year when he scored five goals in the final eight games.

To me, he is a player the Sabres could do without. He is capable of producing points, and even coming up with a few goals now and then, but his inconsistencies are far too great to overcome. However, he might turn out to be a player the Sabres are willing to trade.

If the Sabres decide to make a qualifying offer, it will likely be in the ballpark of $1.25 million per season.

Patrick Kaleta, 22, RW; 2008-09 salary: $500,000

The Sabres know what they will be getting when they extend Kaleta this summer. The 5'11", 195-pound winger is developing into the Sabres most feared hitter. He plays a lot bigger than his size, and is just one of the few high-energy guys on the Sabres roster.

The only knack on Kaleta is his offensive ability. Yeah, a fourth-liner usually doesn't score 20 goals anyways, but he is sometimes one dimensional. 

If he worked on his offensive game, both his stick handling and passing ability, he could develop into a very useful two-way player. He has good speed, and is usually very responsible in his own end. Ruff played him on numerous occasions on the penalty kill because he was very good in getting in the shooting and passing lanes.

The Angola, NY native will likely make around $750,000 with his new deal. If he can stay healthy, which was a problem last season, he is very effective. Kaleta played in only 51 games last season due to a couple injuries, including a neck and head injury.

Andrej Sekera, 22, D; 2008-09 salary: $659,000

Like Kaleta, I believe Sekera will be a full-time Sabre next season. Many fans became sick and tired of seeing Sekera make mistakes last season, and that is understandable. But in reality, it was his first full season as a top-six defenseman in the NHL. Cut him some slack. The Sabres' defensive unit as a whole wasn't very good to begin with. The last thing Sabres' fans should be doing is laying it all on a rookie.

When Brian Campbell was traded a year ago, Sekera was already seeing some playing time. His offensive style drew comparisons to Campbell's, thus being the reason why some thought of him as Campbell's replacement last season.

Sekera is a very smooth skater, and is very good on making outlet passes to his forwards. He is more of a positional defenseman but he does not shy away from the physical aspect of the game.

Halfway through the season I think he did an above-average job in his own end, and at some point, I thought he was one of, if not the best defenseman in Buffalo. But his game dropped off. He began to make dumb mistakes, costing his team goals.

Even towards the end of the season, Ruff had to scratch him for a few games. He publicly said he had no confidence in his game. It happens. Young players get flustered, and usually that is when a savvy veteran comes into play, but leadership wasn't very plentiful in the Sabres' locker room last season.

Sekera has a great deal of potential, and maybe someday he will turn out to be that Campbell-like player some are saying he could be. He can quarterback the power-play, and use his offensive ability to his advantage.

His deal will likely be around $1.25 million per, but no greater than $2 million. He is young. Give him time to develop. I expect him to be much better next season.

Mark Mancari, 22, RW; 2008-09 salary: $522,000

Mancari is more of a prospect right now, but he may be a player the Sabres will look to step in and play next season.

The 6'4", 225-pound winger played only three games last season, but during that short span he showed a lot of energy, grit, and one heck of a slap shot.

Mancari was selected to the last two AHL All-Star games. Two seasons ago he won the hardest shot contest at the AHL skills competition with a 102.8 MPH slap shot. Zdeno Chara's hardest shot was recorded at 103.1 MPH.

During his time time in Portland/Rochester, he has been among the team's top scorers. Last season he had 67 points (29G, 38A) in 73 games for the Pirates. He was mostly seen playing alongside two other well-known prospects, Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy.

Out of all the Sabres' prospects, Mancari might be the most NHL ready. He has tremendous size and strength, and of course, a great shot. Mancari will probably be re-signed for about $700,000 per and should be battling for a roster spot next season.

If he can play with the toughness and grit the Sabres lack, while also producing points, there is no doubt he will be in a Blue and Gold sweater next season. One can only hope he can play at his true potential.

 

Recap

There is no doubt that Sabres management will have plenty of tough decisions when it comes to re-signing their free agents this summer. Not only do they have to deal with their own current free agents, but they also need to play the field, and see what else might be out there to suit their needs.

If they re-sign their restricted free agents to qualifying deals, they will be very limited in cap space. The Sabres will lose a lot of cap room when Connolly's and Pominville's contracts go into effect this summer. This is one of the main reasons why the Sabres may look to explore the trade market.

Players such as Jochen Hecht, Daniel Paille, Clarke MacArthur, Henrik Tallinder, Nathan Paetsch, Derek Roy, and Toni Lydman could all be part of that bunch. The most advantageous scenario for the Sabres would be to trade Hecht and Tallinder, but after all, hockey is a business, and a deal would need to be made. 

Nonetheless, I will explore these possibilities in my next article. I will discuss the possible trade market the Sabres may offer and also go over why I think these players could be traded.

I will also discuss the players the Sabres may want to look at in free agency.

Note: Contract information was obtained from nhlnumbers.com

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