Skilled, smart, speedy, undersized, full of heart, visionary, attacking, entertaining, talented, cocky, clutch. Sound Familiar? It should to fans of the post-lockout Buffalo Sabres.
This was the type of hockey Sabres management decided to build before the lockout. Darcy Regier made deft moves, through trade or through draft and development, to create a core of players which twice allowed the Sabres, to make significant runs for the Stanley Cup.
The 2007-2008 campaign left a lot to be desired, as the team finished out of the playoffs for the first time in the New NHL while the NHL reintroduced a physicality once thought lost in the game.
The Sabres were not prepared for this Sea Change, and more recently, Regier’s moves have come under fire. His misunderstandings of the marketplace and of placing too much faith in player loyalty have led to the Sabres losing more firepower than they have gained. And the continual drain of leadership leaving the team became unbearably evident over the team’s misguided season.
So what now?
Team President Larry Quinn and Regier manage with a small market vision. It is this belief that keeps the team competitive, marketable and stable in financially downtrodden city.
Many believe, however, that this practice has let too many key players get away either without adequate compensation or leaving a bad reputation with fans, teammates or other players across the league.
Now through the 2009 off-season will show if management still has the commitment to run a legitimate franchise in the NHL.
The group of Sabres on the ice this upcoming season can no longer us youth, inexperience or fatigue as excuses. The team knows each other, as very few changes have been made – the only move being the addition of gritty defense man Craig Rivet as another veteran presence.
Otherwise, the defense remains intact, and the top four are all going to be over 30. The forwards are younger, but not lacking in experience. This team and group has played together, and knows each other.
They are the remaining pieces of the 2005-2007 team, and in simple terms, this season is the final charge of the first brigade of post-lockout Sabres.
Veterans Max Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik, Tim Connolly, Jaroslav Spacek and Andrew Peters are all facing unrestricted free agency. All but Peters will play critical roles for the team and take up significant space on the Sabres’ Salary Cap.
If contract years don’t light a fire under Max, Kotalik and keep Connolly healthy, not much will. The chip are aligned perfectly for all of these players to play their hearts out this season, push the Sabres deep into the playoffs and walk out of town with huge contracts somewhere else.
With Ryan Miller, Derek Roy, Paul Gaustad, Thomas Vanek and Jochen Hecht all locked up long term through 2012, the team is now focusing on locking up potential Restricted Free Agent (RFA) Jason Pominville, as well as to a long term extension.
Whether that happens or not, is, as always, as much the player’s decision as it is managements. Another RFA they want to be sure to lock up is defense man Andrej Sekera, who has the potential to be a top four, if not a top two defense man, and they should ensure he is under contract before he could potentially bolt to a team in the KHL with more money closer to home.
Forwards Drew Stafford, Patrick Kaleta and defense man Mike Funk round out the list of potential RFA’s and the Sabres shouldn’t have any problem retaining any of them at the end of the season.
If the team is struggling at the trade deadline, contrary to Regier’s recent history, I expect him to, heavily shop Stafford, Kotalik, Afinogenov, Funk and Spacek.
Fans may be surprised to see Stafford on the list, but there is something that tells me he and Lindy Ruff don’t click and his market value would be more than his value internally would ever be.
The Sabres are stacked with young defense men, starting with Sekera, Nathan Paetsch and Mike Weber, who looked ready for the big boys in a late season call up last season.
Darcy Regier has also hinted at bringing back both Teppo Numminen or Nolan Pratt. Both would make sense, but only as cheap, two way contracts who would be willing to help out in Portland if either Paetsch or Weber made a strong push.
So it is also possible, again if the team is struggling, to see the team completely go crazy and deal either Craig Rivet, Toni Lydman or Henrik Tallinder. Rivet is in Buffalo to help lead the team, and both Lydman and Tallinder have expiring contracts in 2009, all would be seen expendable if the team implodes.
If the team is not struggling at the deadline, look for them to either make a move based on need at the time, or based on the addition by subtraction theory, as moving an expiring contract that is performing such as Afinogenov or possibly Stafford would still make sense, as bringing someone up from Portland and moving people up a line might end up helping the team both long and short term.
At the end of next season, losing Connolly, Kotalik, Afinogenov, Peters and Spacek, equates to opening up $13.5 million in cap space, with five restricted free agents to sign. Pominville should cost anywhere from $3.5 to $5 mil depending on contract length and negotiating skills.
Sekera, Stafford and Funk combined should all come in under $3 million combined unless they decide to invest long term in both Sekera and Stafford, which is unlikely, as it seems to me they really don’t like Stafford.
Of the potential Unrestricted Free Agents (UFA), Lindy Ruff seems to have an affection for Ales Kotalik and the Sabres would be wise to bring him back if he is willing to accept his current $2.5 mil salary.
Kotalik has a booming right handed slap shot, can play the point on the power play, and despite his streaky play, he shows up in the playoffs.
If the Sabres can get Pominville, Kotalik, Sekera, Stafford and Funk back for between $9 to $10 mil, that should be considered a success. It would also leave the team, if they consistently run between $50 and $52 mil in salary cap space, with $8 to $10 million in free agency money left to operate next off-season.
There are potentially three to five forward positions to fill, depending on whether players such as Marc-Andre Gargnani (who is currently toiling between defense and forward, but should end up a forward considering the team’s defensive depth and more immediate forward need), Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy show they are ready for promotions.
Also factoring in is the promotability of defense man Chris Butler and whether that will make Tallinder or Lydman expendable, as well as whether the team is able to retain Clarke MacArthur.
All in all, next off season is looking promising, financially stable and like for the first time since the lockout, the Sabres have many options:
—They could take the most conservative route and focus on locking up players who brought them this far, such as Kotalik, Tallinder, Spacek, Mair and Lydman for a few more years and see where it can take them.
—Take a somewhat more familiar route and make some trades, but take on salary with them due to the cap space, which would finalize the shift of leadership towards Miller, Roy, Vanek, Gaustad, Weber and Pominville, while bringing up the rest of the next generation over the next few years.
—They could be players in the free agent market, spending heavily on a big time player such as Hossa, Zetterberg, Gionta, Madden, McDonald, Cole or Gaborik, or even a restricted free agent such as Upshall, Staal, Kopitar or Kessel, as they could use another big time scorer or center man to help the attack.
However, as most Sabres fans know, despite these shiny names, the Sabres don’t always find the glossy names the most appealing when walking the free agency path.
The best way this would work would be if a team like LA, Minnesota, St. Louis or Edmonton was out of the playoffs by the deadline and the Sabres traded for a player such as Kopitar, Gaborik, McDonald or Cole.
—Their last option would be to stash the money for the 2010 free agency class, which, if looking at it now, is even stronger, both in RFA and UFA, than the 2009 class, and could be what many teams are already planning for.
It will be clear to Sabres fans what the plan is by the trade deadline of this season and the middle of next July. Now, just like every other major sport, there is never a down time.