Buffalo Sabres: 5 Offseason Moves That Can Make Buffalo a Cup Contender in 2012
Following the NHL's year-long lockout during the 2004-05 season, perhaps no franchise was looked upon more favorably than the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres were viewed as a team on the rise that was able to adapt to the NHL's new style of play quicker and better than anybody else.
The Sabres fell one game short of the Stanley Cup Finals during the 2005-06 season, and if not for a ridiculous string of injuries to four of their top defensemen, a Stanley Cup victory was very likely. The Sabres followed that season with the best regular season in franchise history, capturing the President's Trophy. But yet again, the Sabres were vanquished in the conference finals.
What ensued was the loss of co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency and two seasons that saw the Sabres fall short of the playoffs. The Sabres returned to the postseason during the 2009-10 season but disappointed with a first-round exit.
Entering this season, the Sabres had grown stagnant organizationally. Many fans felt as though the team was stuck in neutral and that winning wasn't the top priority. That all changed, however, when the Sabres were bought by Terry Pegula. The change in culture allowed the team to roar into the playoffs and push the Philadelphia Flyers to the brink of elimination before falling short in a Game 7.
Although there is more reason for optimism regarding the Sabres than there has been in quite some time, the playoff loss to the Flyers certainly exposed some glaring weaknesses. If Pegula's goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to Buffalo is to be accomplished, there are a number of holes that must be filled.
Here are five offseason moves that can make the Buffalo Sabres Stanley Cup contenders in 2012.
5. Cut Ties with Most Veteran UFAs
With 11 forward and seven defenseman slots already occupied by either returning players or restricted free agents, there simply isn't any room for the Sabres to re-sign most of their large crop of unrestricted free agents.
Forwards Tim Connolly, Mike Grier, Rob Niedermayer, Cody McCormick and Matt Ellis, defenseman Steve Montador and goalie Patrick Lalime will all be UFAs come July 1.
Grier and Niedermayer, while somewhat effective playoff performers, both showed that they can no longer contribute consistently over the course of the season at their advanced ages.
Also, Connolly showed that he no longer has the dynamic offensive ability that landed him a controversial two-year $9 million contract two seasons ago. Although it's probably best to let Connolly walk, I wouldn't be opposed to offering him a $2 million per year contract to center the third line. Whether or not most Sabres fans want to admit it, Connolly has actually developed into a solid defensive forward with good ability on the penalty kill.
Both McCormick and Ellis should be considered for extensions for various reasons. McCormick brings a fair amount of sandpaper to the lineup and likely wouldn't cost much more than the $500,000 he made last season. Ellis, on the other hand, is a nice spare part to store in Portland who can be called up in a pinch. He would most likely accept a two-way contract.
Prior to the postseason, I would have said that Montador should be re-signed, but I believe he played himself out of a contract with a lackluster playoff performance. He failed to play with the grittiness that endeared him to many fans and there are far too many careless giveaways and penalties. When you pair that with the fact that there are already seven NHL defensemen on the roster, there really isn't any room for Montador.
Cutting bait with Lalime is a no-brainer. Not only was he never effective as a backup to Ryan Miller, but Jhonas Enroth stepped up and essentially wrestled the backup job away from him last season. With Enroth ready to make the full-time leap to the NHL, there's really no reason to keep Lalime around, even if he is Miller's best buddy.
To tie everything together, Grier, Niedermayer, Montador and Lalime are all as good as gone. Connolly is also most likely on the way out but could be a decent signing at a reduced rate. Ellis is a nice veteran to stash in Portland. Finally, McCormick is the only player I would definitely sign as he can contribute some toughness to the lineup on the fourth line or serve as a spare part.
4. Reserve a Roster Spot for Zack Kassian
While the Sabres showed some good team toughness in their playoff series against Philadelphia, it was hard to come away from the series without noticing the Sabres' lack of size at forward.
Some of Buffalo's smaller players like Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe are perfectly capable of sticking up for themselves, but that doesn't stop opponents from taking liberties with them. The best way to stop that would be to stick them on a line with an enforcer. The classic enforcer is really of no use in today's NHL, however. Your tough guys need to be able to contribute in other ways or else they're an albatross in the lineup. The Sabres do have one solid tough guy in Cody McCormick, but it might be counterproductive to stick him on a scoring line.
That's where Zack Kassian comes in. Kassian, the 13th overall selection in the 2009 draft, was universally feared during his time in juniors with the Peterborough Petes and Windsor Spitfires. Although his unpredictable behavior crossed the line at times, Kassian was always willing to drop the gloves in defense of his teammates. What makes Kassian even more valuable, though, is that he also possesses a good scoring touch to complement his rough-and-tumble style of play.
It's no guarantee that Kassian's scoring ability will immediately translate to the NHL, but if it does, he could easily be a Milan Lucic-type player. Even if he only develops into a 10-15 goal scorer, Kassian will still be useful based solely upon his toughness. If the Sabres are still unsure about Kassian's readiness to play at the NHL level, he can start the season in Portland, but I think he'll eventually need to become a vital part of the Sabres' lineup in order for them to have playoff success.
3. Re-sign RFA Drew Stafford
Stafford is coming off the best season of his career, tallying 31 goals and 52 points in just 62 games. While it was nice to see some offensive growth from Stafford, but the timing isn't especially good for the Sabres as Stafford is likely due a considerable pay raise as a restricted free agent.
In order to argue for the signing of Stafford, I first have to present some of the arguments against signing him. These include that he is too inconsistent, that there is too much money tied up in wingers, and that there won't be enough money to improve elsewhere.
In terms of goal scorers in the NHL, there are very few who score on a consistent basis. Most of them score in bunches which is exactly what Stafford did this past season. There are obviously drawbacks to that type of inconsistency, but what it does tell you is that Stafford is capable of taking over a game and winning it singlehandedly with his goal output.
Also, goal scoring isn't the only thing that Stafford brings to the table. Even when he wasn't scoring, Stafford was a valuable asset to the team as evidenced by his plus-13 rating. His work along the boards was better than it's ever been and his willingness to crash the net led to plenty of scoring opportunities for his linemates.
If it weren't for money, re-signing Stafford would be an obvious choice. Unfortunately, in the age of the salary cap, tough decisions need to be made at times. Stafford will, in all likelihood, command between $4 million and $4.5 million per season. That's obviously a good chunk of change, but there are ways of getting around it. If it's absolutely necessary, both Jochen Hecht and Jason Pominville could be decent trade chips.
Hecht certainly isn't the player he once was, but he has just one year and $3 million left on his contract. This could make him attractive to a contending team who needs a solid third-line forward who can kill penalties.
Pominville might be trickier to move with three years at $5.5 million per year left on his contract, but he's a much more useful player than Hecht. Because he hasn't reached the 80-point plateau since signing his most recent contract, it's perceived that he's grossly overpaid. While he may be overpaid by about $2 million per year, Pominville is a fine defensive forward who can penalty kill while chipping in over 20 goals per season. I find it hard to believe that there isn't a market for that type of player.
The best argument for keeping Stafford, however, is that Stanley Cup-contending teams don't subtract big pieces from their team, they add them. If the Sabres were to let Stafford go and pursue a center instead, they'd be solving one problem while creating another. It will undoubtedly take some creativity to hang onto Stafford while improving in other areas as well, but those are the types of moves that great organizations are able to make.
2. Sign a Defensive Partner for Tyler Myers
Perhaps no player's play is a better indicator of the Sabres' success than that of Tyler Myers. Coming off a 2009-10 season that saw Myers win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie, Myers struggled out of the gate this season, as did the Sabres.
It's no coincidence that Myers' improved play went hand-in-hand with the Sabres' rapid ascent into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Although Myers' slight step back in his second season could be attributed to a sophomore slump, I think a lot of it has to do with his defensive partners.
Myers was paired with Henrik Tallinder throughout his entire rookie season which allowed him to stay comfortable all season long. It also allowed Myers to do what he does best; rush the puck. Tallinder was the perfect stay-at-home complement to Myers' offensive ability.
This season wasn't so cut and dry for Myers, however, with Tallinder leaving via free agency. He spent the season with a few different defensive partners, none of which offered the stability that Tallinder did. Myers especially struggled when paired with Andrej Sekera. This is because Sekera's lack of defensive acumen forced Myers to play the role of defensive defenseman on many occasions.
Luckily for the Sabres, there are a number of good stay-at-home defenseman available in free agency this offseason. Among the best options for Buffalo are Kevin Bieksa, Scott Hannan, Eric Brewer, Jan Hejda and Hal Gill.
Bieksa is likely a pipe dream at this point as his excellent playoff performance could easily land him $5 million per year. There's no doubt that his physical style of play would mesh nicely with Myers.
Brewer and Hannan are probably next in line in terms of salary as each should command somewhere between $3 million and $4 million per year. Both Brewer and Hannan are responsible veterans who should come in handy during postseason play.
Gill and Hejda might be the Sabres' best options if they're looking for value. Gill is quickly entering the twilight of his career, but he should have a couple solid years left and would provide the most experience of any potential option. Hejda, a former fourth-round pick of the Sabres, might come with the most question marks, but he may also have more untapped potential than any of the aforementioned blueliners. Pairing him with an elite talent like Myers could very well allow Hejda to reach that potential.
Overall, if I were general manager Darcy Regier, I would shoot for Brewer but be willing to settle for Hejda as a strong fallback option.
1. Trade for a Top-Line Center
The four previously mentioned offseason maneuvers should all be fairly simple to execute. Nothing will be more difficult, or vital to the Sabres' future success for that matter, than acquiring a top-line center.
If there was ever any question about the importance of centers in the NHL, look no further than this season's final four playoff teams to prove it. The Tampa Bay Lightning have Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. The Boston Bruins feature David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron. The Vancouver Canucks employ Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. Finally, the San Jose Sharks have four great players capable of playing center in Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.
All of those teams have at least two excellent centers, while the Sabres have maybe one. Without the services of Derek Roy for most of the season and their playoff series against the Flyers, the Sabres were at a severe disadvantage offensively. That's what makes their late-season tear all the more impressive. With a healthy Derek Roy serving as the second-line center and the addition of a first-line center, the Sabres would immediately be considered serious Stanley Cup contenders.
The only decent options through free agency at the center position are Brad Richards and Brooks Laich. Richards, unfortunately seems destined to sign with the New York Rangers, and he would cost an arm and a leg anyway. Laich on the other hand, while a very solid player, probably isn't cut out for the role of No. 1 center.
This means that Buffalo's best option is probably to make a trade. While it's pretty much impossible to say which centers are on the trading block right now, some names to consider are Stephen Weiss of the Florida Panthers, Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche and Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Because the Panthers have been a stagnant franchise for the past 15 years, they would probably be willing to move Weiss in an effort to shake things up. Weiss is signed for two more years at $4.05 million per year. This makes him a very affordable and attractive option. The main issue, however, is that Weiss may or may not be ready to be the top guy on a contending team. Weiss put up respectable numbers with little talent around him in Florida, but assuming he can make the leap to elite status is a big risk.
Stastny is a more proven commodity than Weiss but would be a much more expensive option as he is signed through the 2013-14 season at $6.6 million per year. Also, it's no guarantee that Colorado would be willing to move him. Since the Avs are essentially in disarray right now, they might be open to making a blockbuster deal, but it's tough to say.
The best option, in my opinion, would be to try and pry Sharp away from Chicago. There are a few reasons why this is a distinct possibility. For one, the Blackhawks are in a salary cap nightmare. They only have $77,000 in cap space currently which makes it unlikely that they would have enough space to re-sign Sharp when his contract expires after next season. The fact that Sharp has only one year and $4.2 million left on his contract should also be attractive to the Sabres as there is no long-term, big money commitment.
The big question is how to go about striking a deal. Chicago won't be looking to add any salary so if Buffalo needs to clear cap space to bring in Sharp, it might be best for them to ship off Pominville or Hecht in a separate deal as I mentioned before.
The Sabres have a number of tradeable commodities including Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler who are both restricted free-agent defensemen. The Sabres could also part with center Luke Adam who won the AHL Rookie of the Year Award this past season. If worse comes to worst, Zack Kassian is also a possibility, as is defenseman Brayden McNabb who had an incredible 2010-11 season in the WHL. Add in a first-round pick and the Sabres definitely have the tools to get a deal done if they so desire.