Upcoming Free Agency: A New Flutie/Johnson?

The Buffalo Sabres are coming up on a very exciting off-season. Terry Pegula has lifted any self-imposed salary cap and is aiming to bring multiple Cups to the starving fanbase in Western New York. The problem is that this Sabres team is comprised of a large core of under-talented overachievers and overpaid average players. They’re on the cusp, and they’ve got to know who is wheat and who is chaff, and the wrong move could land them buried in mediocrity for another 3 or 4 years.
(seeing as these are all opinions, please comment and share yours)


There are a good number of upcoming free agents on this team, and only a couple are of any real consequence to the future of the franchise. Yes, they need to lock in Jhonas Enroth in order to give Miller a suitable backup (and maybe to start looking past our current $6 million dollar goaltender…).


Yes, they’ve got to lock in a couple defenders. Half the defense core is in free agency, and the prodigal son Tyler Myers will be a restricted free agent in the 2012 off-season. So they need to play their cards perfect on the blue line, choosing between Sekera, Butler, Weber, Montador, and Gragnani and still leaving room for any replacements and a big fat raise for Myers.


Up front they’ve got a bunch of likeable role players up on contract. Grier, McCormick, Ellis, Parrish, Niedermayer, and Mancari are all looking to be re-signed, and honestly I’d love to see them all back. But that’s the “I love the team” and “familiar face” fan talking…that fan has not seen his team win a Stanley Cup. So if those guys are looking for any more than 3rd or 4th line money, I say let them walk.


With an opinion that I’m sure is pretty divisive, I say this team should offer Tim Connolly around $1.5 million to play for them a few more years. Connolly is NOT a top line player, but he can play on the penalty kill, he can score some points (as evidenced by his 2009-10 campaign), and he is able to play center. Even though certain wind-bags seem to think he is the embodiment of cancer, Connolly could have a place on a team if he is not in a leadership or superstar role. That also means the team can’t pay him like a superstar.
Besides, from his perspective there can’t be too many teams that would be willing to pay him more than that. If he thinks he can bring in $2.5 million on some other team, that might be the concussions talking.


At the end of the day you want someone who wants to be on the team. Steve Montador and Mike Grier have both expressed a desire to finish their careers as Sabres. Awesome! However, the business side says you have to look at their performances. Monty is a great team player and had a decent year offensively, but he’s prone to defensive breakdowns, injury, and should be a third pairing defender. Grier had an awful season and went into the playoffs like a S.C.U.D. missile, plowing over any Flyer he could. It may not go over well, but if I called the shots I would give Grier a deal like they gave to Mark Parrish; let him play the season in Portland, teaching the younglings, and call him up for the playoffs if you need him.


The big question for me is which of these free agents has got the most potential to make a winning franchise. In my view it’s a choice between Drew Stafford and Nathan Gerbe, a very wrong choice and a very right one.


Does this sound familiar? There are two players in a similar position, each with different profiles, and each hoping to fill a limited role on the team. One of them is the textbook player, being of model size, build, stature, and all the scouting says he’s a great fit for a team leader and the face of a franchise. The other is a perpetual underdog because he’s small, he’s scrappy, and people say he has no business even being in the big league.


The Doug Flutie/Rob Johnson quarterback controversy was pretty definitive for the Buffalo Bills. The Bills took a winning season and flushed it down the toilet, and many believe it was because the management (as per order by Ralph Wilson) changed quarterbacks after Doug Flutie led them to the playoffs. Flutie went on to play in San Diego and the Bills moved forward to never ever make the playoffs ever again.


The Stafford/Gerbe situation is different. In theory, the Sabres could re-sign both of them just fine. Considering that both would be looking for a raise, the Sabres would have to cut that money elsewhere (such as getting that #1 center everybody’s set on) but there is a world where Gerbe and Stafford can co-exist on this team. However they do represent two different ways this franchise can go: reward determination and grit or bank on what could be.


Stafford got called up and played with Danny Briere in 2007. Since then he has perfected coasting, totaling stand-out mundane seasons of 38, 45, and 34 points before finally waking up and scoring 31 goals and 21 assists this year. Yes, I was excited that he scored a ridiculous number of hat tricks this year. Yes, I thought it would be good to see what he could do in the playoffs. Yes, I was disappointed that he couldn’t manage to score more than 1 goal and 2 assists in 7 games against Philly. Finally, yes I am convinced that this was all the “contract year motivation” I keep hearing about.

Remember last time the Sabres signed somebody because of one really good season? Now they pay Jason Pominville $5 million a year. Does anybody think that’s a good idea at all?

Drew Stafford’s scouting profile has remarks like “captain material.” Mike Schopp (no I don’t know why I continue to listen to that show) states that he’s got some sort of intangible “edge” or “potential.” That’s awesome. I prefer to say what his stats make him: a streaky, above average player. Those kinds of players get your team into the playoffs, but they do not lead your team to a Stanley Cup.


Nathan Gerbe, meanwhile, is a chippy kid who is sick of being seen as a kid. As soon as this team drafted him, the size issues were abundant and everybody wanted to know why we were drafting a squirt. Take a look at what other teams say about him, and you’ll see how much respect he gets around the league. That’s fair, and that’s fine by me. That’s what breeds someone to become a Danny Briere or a Martin St. Louis. Being pampered and spoiled by everybody giving you the benefit of the doubt turns you into an underachieving ass. Having to prove people wrong every step of the way is what turns you into someone that will work hard for every point.

In December I was wondering why Gerbe was on this team. He was relegated to the third line, playing left wing to Gaustad and Grier and never finding any offense. For the first half of the season I would say, “I thought they drafted him in the first round because he was a goal scorer.” Well, then Lindy turned him loose offensively and Gerbe helped this team make the post-season. He had 31 points after a dismal start. Some may want to point out that Drew Stafford was injured for a good stretch, but Gerbe only played two more games.

Is Gerbe a guarantee? Absolutely not. This year he logged third line minutes because, frankly, the Sabres have so many mediocre players on the first two lines there isn’t room for him. However he showed more determination to overcome his small stature, and a fire that Drew Stafford just can’t seem to replicate.


What the hell’s all this saying? Well, Stafford’s expecting a raise. He’s coming off a $2.5 million contract and he’s probably looking to make $4 million or more to stick around Buffalo. Gerbe, meanwhile, is making $0.85 million and has got to know how fortunate he is that a team is giving him a chance to choke in the big leagues. Gerbe can easily replicate what Stafford’s done, and maybe excel and outdo it. Stafford, meanwhile, is who he is and I doubt he’ll have a season much better than this last one.

My verdict is to let Stafford walk and give Gerbe $2 million to see what he can do as a scoring forward over an entire season. Sign or trade for a real center to replace Connolly (and Hecht) on the top 2 lines. Then you take a look at Pominville, Hecht, and Boyes and see who if anybody you can move and if Gerbe can replace any of them as a top forward. And don’t make the mistake of falling in love with Drew Stafford because he “fits the part.” Rob Johnson sure as hell didn’t.

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Tags: Buffalo Buffalo Sabres Darcy Regier Derek Roy Drew Stafford Eastern Conference Fansided Free Agency Hockey Jason Pominville Jhonas Enroth Lindy Ruff Nathan Gerbe NHL Northeast Division Patrick Kaleta Patrick Lalime Philadelphia Flyers Portland Pirates Ryan Miller Sabres Stanley Cup Stanley Cup Playoffs Steve Montador Terry Pegula Tim Connolly Trade Trade Deadline Tyler Ennis Tyler Myers

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