The last two seasons have not been what Sabres fans would call a success. Three years removed from back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, Buffalo fans are not going to settle for a third straight 10th place finish.
General Manager Darcy Regier and Head Coach Lindy Ruff both were placed on the chopping block after the season, and they both survived, thankfully. But the pressure is now on them both to turn this franchise back into a winner. That task will begin in earnest tomorrow when free agency officially is underway at noon.
At noon, Jaroslav Spacek, Dominic Moore, Maxim Afinogenov, Andrew Peters, Teppo Numminen and Matt Ellis will be up for grabs. Drew Stafford, Andrej Sekera and Clarke MacArthur will be able to be extended offer sheets as restricted free agents. Only Sekera and MacArthur are seen as locks to be back.
Spacek will command a similar salary to his current $3.3 million per season and was the Sabres' highest scoring defenseman last season. The Sabres would love him back, but he may simply be in the way of the likes of Mike Weber, Tyler Myers or any one in their deep defensive prospect pool.
Stafford is rumored to have a target on his back much like Thomas Vanek did a few summers ago. While Stafford will not be offered the same ridiculous deal, he may be able to net the Sabres a few first round draft picks. If that is the case, I would not be surprised to see Darcy jump on the picks to free up some money for other use.
Stafford has shown flashes, but he has not established himself as Vanek did with his 40-goal season. It simply is not worth the money to keep him when the opportunity to grab a few more first-round talents presents itself.
If Stafford goes, as well as Numminen, Spacek and Afinogenov, the ability to go out and secure a top-6 forward is now a reality. Three names spring to the top of the list: Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Martin Havlat.
Havlat is the biggest stretch of the three because he could easily command $7 million a year if teams look past his reputation of being an eggshell. The last thing the Sabres need is another Tim Connolly on their hands. But his grit was on display in the Western Conference Finals when he played after being knocked out cold the previous game.
Gionta has the ability to score 40-goals a year, but he falls into the small category that has dogged the Sabres the past few years. He also had a down year last year and may not be worth the $5 million plus he'll command. But he is not afraid to mix it up and he is a hometown boy, as he's from Rochester, N.Y. and played for the Buffalo Junior Sabres.
Cammalleri seems to be the best fit, and he has expressed interest in coming to Buffalo in the past when he played with the Los Angeles Kings. He would cost somewhere in the $6 million range and if paired with Vanek, Connolly, or both, could be just as productive as he was this year with 39 goals. Again, the knock is his size (5'9/185), but he has only missed more than one game once in his career and has definitive goal scoring talent.
No matter, Regier needs to make a statement in the next few weeks that shows that he is willing to do what it takes to make the Sabres a contender. The draft Friday was a great step forward with the selection of Zack Kassian 13th overall. Widely regarded as the meanest player in the draft, the selection was a far cry from what the Sabres have been characterized as the past few seasons: small and not physical.
A top-6 forward and a steady defenseman should propel the Sabres back into the playoffs and put the Sabres back on the track that netted them the President's Trophy.