Free Agency Approaches – Part 1

Okay, so I’m used to the Buffalo Sabres saying that “this summer will be different.” Every year we hear it from Darcy and Larry Quinn that they’re going to take a real, close, hard evaluation of this team and do what is necessary to put together a Cup contender the next year.

Every year I am rewarded with a so/so off-season (except 2007 when the world ended).

This year is the first year that the Sabres are free of their self-imposed salary cap, the first year that they can spend to the league limit. You know…like a real team. It’s the first year that I’ve felt we can get excited about some of the big names that go flying around, and I’m not just talking about Brad Richards as a free agent. Sabres fans have an opportunity to get excited about trades, free agent signing, and that amazing prestige factor that makes players want to play for certain teams: reputation.

Ted Black has already stated that the Buffalo Sabres organization is overhauling the locker room and training facilities, looking to make them the best in the league. From the top down, the entire organization is modernizing, nitpicking, and fine tuning HSBC Arena and every little intangible thing about the team for which there is no salary cap. These “extras” are what separate teams from destinations, and their purpose is to give their players an edge and to edge free agents to want to play here.

There are two parts to the off-season. Next week I will be taking a look at free agents and trade options, but this week I’d like to go over what to do with certain players that Buffalo fans are quick to pay or buy out

Upcoming Free Agents

Drew Stafford and Nathan GerbeThere are the guys that I think will make or break the off-season as far as it pertains to players that the Sabres currently have under contract. I wrote a piece about it a while ago, so check that if you want insight there.

Mike Grier – He was quoted as saying, “Tough one to swallow. I don’t know if I’ve played on a team that I’ve been more proud of” in regards to losing Game 7 against the Flyers. Grier’s regular season wasn’t that great, but his presence in the playoffs was known. When he wasn’t pasting Flyers into the boards, he was making smart, defensive plays. Still, he was a -3 through a bunch of tight games, and he only had 1 assist. The man’s getting older and while his veteran leadership is a great intangible, hockey teams need tangible stats to be competitors.
Verdict: Offer him a 2 way deal to Portland. If he loves this team as much as he says, he’ll realize that his best suited purpose would be to be ready for a call up (for instance, during the playoffs) but that he can’t skate for as long as he used to. A veteran presence in the AHL is a huge shot in the arm for call-ups…just look at how much more composed they were this year, as we happened to have Mark Parrish down there.

Steve Montador – Another great role player who always gives 100% of the effort and has stated that he wants to retire a Sabre. The problem is that he’s not a Top 4 defender. Monty is prone to the occasional mental lapse or blown tire, and it’s led to a couple of game winners against the Sabres. The desire is there, and he’s only 31, but this team can’t be giving a fat raise to a mediocre player if they want to escape mediocrity.
Verdict: If he’s looking for a big raise, I’m sorry but let him walk. If he really wants to play here, he’ll be willing to take the same amount of money (adjusted for a slight increase) and be a third pairing or seventh defender.

Andrej Sekera -After a bad start to his career, Reggie found his big boy pants this year and started 2011 on an absolute tear. He cooled off but played solid hockey, and then did alright in the playoffs. He has the making of an excellent first line defender, and fans already saw what happens when Tyler Myers’ partner disappears.
Verdict: If this team thinks Andrej is a top tier defender, they better be prepared to pay top tier money. Sign him long term to try to ease the cap hit, but he looks like he’s finally blossomed to be worth the money.

Chris Butler -As much as I love watching Chris throw up all over himself for 82 games, he doesn’t show as much upside as Sekera did two years ago. He’s going to be average, a third tier guy, and if he doesn’t agree to third pairing money then let him walk.
Verdict: Hope you like your current paycheck, Chris. That’s what you’ll get somewhere else…except maybe the Islanders.

Mike Weber – While he surpassed Butler easily, Weber still needs to show that he can do something besides body check. He could be a solid shut down defender (which the Sabres have none of) if he stops taking himself out of the play.
Verdict: Give him a 2 or 3 year starter deal.

Marc-Andre Gragnani – Holy crap did he ever show up in the playoffs and impress. I’ve got to wonder how much of that was the lack of tape that Philly had to watch, but then again this kid did wonders in the AHL for years. I was surprised he wasn’t on the Sabres in 2009-10.
Verdict: Give him a 3 year deal. By the time that deal’s expired, he’ll be playing up to his expectations and threatening Leopold’s job.



Jhonas Enroth – No question about it, the Sabres need a backup and an option once Ryan Miller’s $6 million contract is up.
Verdict: Pay him and play him. Emphasis on the “play him” part.

Patrick Lalime – Has talked about getting into coaching, perhaps. Best of luck, Patty. See ya.

Rob Niedermayer -Man oh man I was excited about the team signing Niedsagoal last off-season. I can’t think of a way to justify giving him the same amount of money for what he did this year. I’d much rather see that ice time given to one of the kids in Portland.

Tim Connolly – Tim is honestly a good third line center. He’s not going to break the bank on any team with his reputation and history of injuries. That being said, he is an excellent penalty killer, can be plugged in to play center on the top two lines when absolutely needed, and he can still score when the moon is full.
Verdict: Give the guy $1 million to play special teams. Nobody else is going to pay him (and if they offer him, let him walk) PLUS the Sabres signing him might just make Jerry Sullivan burst into flame. Win/win.

Cody McCormick – He’s a capable 4th liner that fights and can actually score.
Verdict: Still, pay him 4th line money for 4th line minutes.

Mark Mancari – While he looked better this year than others, Mancari’s never impressed me. He always looks slow mentally and physically. Basically the kid looks like Jiri Novotny 2.0.
Verdict: In a sea of mediocrity, he is the mediocritiest.

Matt Ellis – He’s a plugger. He’ll do his job, but he’s already lost that job once.
Verdict: Hey Matt…you want the league minimum? You know you do.

Mark Parrish – If he’ll take the same amount of money, he was a huge boon to the Pirates. A veteran presence in the minors is a BIG advantage. For so many years fans would see prospects come up to the big leagues and look like a scared kid. This year there was a confidence in the call-ups, and I’m betting that a grizzled veteran playing with them, talking to them, and helping them is a good reason.
Verdict: Pursue him and try to keep him, provided he accepts the same money and a 2 way deal.


The “Buy Them Out” Club

This one is quick. I’ve heard and read many fans saying that in order for the Sabres to move past mediocrity they need to “ditch” or “dump” or “get rid of” some of the average players that make way too much money. The popular names here are Jochen Hecht (33 years old, $3 million cap hit next year) and Jason Pominville (27 years old, $5.5 million cap hit next year). A lot of fans don’t think that these guys are worth the money that they’re being paid, and advocate getting rid of them in favor of freeing up that money and getting a Grade A player.

Here’s the issue with that. Remember when the Sabres bought out Tim Kennedy? Remember the fallout that occurred amongst fans, and never mind what that told the league? I didn’t think the buyout was a big deal, but I respect the slap in the face that many perceived that to be. Maybe it was mostly because he was a Buffalonian, or because people legitimately felt he deserved $1 million.

Well let’s amplify that outcry a bit. The Sabres signed contracts, promising too much money to two mediocre players. Hecht is a role playing third liner who gets put on the second line because he makes too much money to be a third liner. Pominville had one really, really good year and this team scrambled to keep him, and now they’re locked in 5 big ones.

If this team cuts these players or buys them out, what will players around the league think? Remember all that effort and money the organization is sinking into the locker room and training staff in order to entice the best in the league to want to come play here? Do you think that those players will think highly of a team that cuts ties with players because the team signed bad contracts?

If Darcy can miraculously trade Hecht or Pominville, great. Get something for them. Free up the cap space, then sign players who actually are worth that kind of money. But if they can’t be moved they’ve only got Hecht for one more year. Pominville’s around a while longer, but he’s also younger and has more upside. Only by showing the integrity to stand by their word, to honor those contracts, is this team going to show players around the league that they are THE team to come play for.

I guess the best way to put it is whether this team is manly or boyish. A boy makes a mistake, then tries to cover it up and get rid of it. A man makes a mistake and he owns up to it then works around it, all without breaking his word. By buying out Hecht or Pominville or anyone else, this team will be literally breaking their word (aka their contract) and players will know that this team is run by boys. By building around our expensive mediocre players and dealing with their bad move, this team will show some integrity that could gain respect from the big names in the league.

Tags: Buffalo Buffalo Sabres Darcy Regier Drew Stafford Eastern Conference Fansided Free Agency Hockey Jason Pominville Jhonas Enroth New York Islanders NHL Northeast Division Patrick Lalime Portland Pirates Ryan Miller Sabres Stanley Cup Stanley Cup Playoffs Terry Pegula Tim Connolly Trade Tyler Myers

  • 45yrfan

    So, the perception of NHL players will be that the Sabres are untrustworthy. To read it, it seems you are saying NHL players will believe that Sabre player contracts are not worth the paper they are written on. Maybe some NHL players would believe that. The perception of most everyone these days is determined by their self-interest. I may be overstating what you said, but, you say buying out contracts would makeboys in the eyes of players and not men.

    Well, how about reorienting to reality. When, as a hot shot performer in business, you sign a big contract, you better deliver up to management expectations. If you don’t, management won’t even have to fire you. The employees who watched you jump over their pay scales will put a target on your back, and they won’t stop shooting until you’re gone. Are you saying that makes business management “boys”? Call them boys if you will. I would say it this way. When you take the big bucks, you have to be ready to play with the big boys.

    How about this scenario? Let’s say that NHL players already see several of the Sabres as overpaid mediocre players (you seem to also) who are nowhere near being a Stanley Cup contender at this time. Let’s also say, just as in business, their opinion is that they would resent playing with these players AT THEIR CURRENT SALARIES. After all, NHL players feel this way because they are only human. (Sounds possible to me.)

    Perhaps, the impression some NHL players get is that it is proven that the Sabres will sign a big contract with you and then let you coast – for years even. So, if you’re nearing the point in you career where this situation is starting to look good to you, maybe taking care of your family is more important to you than proving yourself every day on the ice. But as compassionate as management may feel, pro hockey is a business – one that pays enormous salaries, even to its least paid.

    So, suppose the Sabres sent out a message that they will hot be taken advantage of, that contracts go two ways. They take the stand that, like any other business, you have to perform to your pay grade, or, surpass your previous performance level and earn more, or, get demoted, or, leave – voluntarily or not. Hockey is not a patriarchal business, and why does it get treated like the laws of physics don’t apply? It’s the real world and maybe you should be gratful that your job hasn’t yet been outsourced.

    The fans live in the real world, and their love of the game allows players to live elsewhere – but I think that has its limits. What makes athletes immune to the fans realities? Hockey is a game. Players are lucky to get paid like they do and do what they love. What they and team owners earn is in the realm of fantasy. So why, tell me, are players above delivering their side of the bargain? As the saying goes, stand and deliver, or else. That’s how real men live.

    • Dan Sterlace

      In the same reply, you stated that this should be the “real world” and that there should be real world consequences to not living up to a contract, and then that “hockey is a game. Players are lucky to get paid like they do and do what they love.” You can’t have it both ways.

      Your second point is countered by saying that hockey is a business, and a big money business. A player comes to his employer and says, “I can make you a lot of money by producing an amazing product that people will pay to see.” As soon as you backtrack and start talking about how this is just a game and that players are lucky, you’ve cut out your own “real world” leg to stand on.

      Whenever there’s a buyout in the league, there are repercussions. These players all talk to each other, and the players’ union makes sure that their agents hear what goes on in other cities. Right now the Sabres reputation is that of a flaky team with a rich owner who promised big things to the fans, then kept the same coach and GM. To the big name players in the league, what evidence is there right now that shows that this organization is going to be ready to sign an elite superstar?

      No. The club makes so/so deals, fails to make real changes last year when they needed to (after the debacle against Boston in the playoffs), and they haven’t actually shown themselves to be what they say they are…unless you think the Boyes trade was a Stanley Cup contending thing to do.