The Buffalo Sabres have oodles of cap space to burn — the most in the NHL — and on July 1 they must spend their way through the $20 million heap of cash they have to climb just to reach the NHL’s salary cap floor. Their situation is eerily similar to that of another team that sat in Buffalo’s position a few years ago. It didn’t work out so well for that team, and in studying the past, Sabres GM Tim Murray can better prepare for the future.
It was 2011 and the Florida Panthers had just wrapped up yet another season of finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference. They hadn’t made the NHL playoffs since 2000 and hadn’t won a playoff series since their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals. They were a regular at the top of the draft with an organization nearly as bare of pro-ready talent as the current Buffalo team stands. They also possessed gobs of cap space much like Buffalo does now. Enter former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon.
Tallon quickly whipped the Panthers into shape with a flurry of offseason moves that brought in veteran mid-level players for substantial contracts with pay and term that couldn’t be matched elsewhere.
In effect, he traded three draft picks and Rotislav Olesz for Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg in June. Campbell already carried a whopper contract in which he was still due over $35 million over the next five years, but Tallon wasn’t even close to done.
Tallon would later sign Kopecky to a 4 year $12 million deal and Versteeg to a 4 year deal worth nearly $18 million. He also signed free agent Scottie Upshall to a 4 year $14 million deal. Then he signed Tomas Fleischmann to a 4 year $18 million deal. He also signed Sean Bergenheim to a 4 year $11 million deal and the recently bought-out Ed Jovanovski to a 4 year deal worth more than $16 million.
In October, Tallon acquired Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm. He then added Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski at the trade deadline. In less than a year, Tallon managed to trade and sign his way to seeing the Panthers rise from basement dweller to Southeast Division Champions. And yet, this story still has a bad ending.
The Panthers had to spend and they spent. Then they spent and spent. And while the immediate results were better, they were unsustainable. The Panthers have not made the playoffs since that year.
Dale Tallon got greedy and pushed his team too far along too quickly. A few of these guys were great ideas. Fleischmann scored 27 goals in his first game as a Panther and has been a steady forward in Florida. Campbell is still one of the most underrated defensemen in the league.
He had stockpiled young prospects, many of whom weren’t quite ready for the pros, but basically put a stop sign at the NHL’s doors for those players. In acquiring so many veterans, he stunted the growth of the high draft picks that were slowly ascending the Panthers’ system. He wanted to show everyone he could build a playoff team, and he did, but he didn’t build a perennial contender.
Kris Versteeg was traded after one 20 goal season with the Panthers was followed by a disappointing pair of follow-ups. Kopecky managed 12 points in 49 games last season. Wojtek Wolski left Florida after being a trade deadline rental. Upshall tallied a whopping ten points in the 53 combined games he played in his first two seasons. Even if the Panthers wanted to trade Upshall, they couldn’t because Tallon gave him a no-movement clause.
The difference between having a guy like Upshall fail in Florida and having some young, but growing player fail is that you learn nothing from Upshall’s failure. He was never worth such a deal in the first place and through his failure, you only stunt the growth of the guy behind Upshall who might have more promise and more of a say in the future of the franchise.
To transform an NHL roster, you must first transform the organization. A perennial Cup contender oozes talent through all levels. It doesn’t rush young players, but it also doesn’t entirely rely on veterans. You need a growing, organic mix of talents and player types in order to find that right chemistry on the ice. In bringing so many outside players to replace their AHLers and young kids, the Panthers boosted their immediate record while clogging the pipeline with every mid-tier free agent from the summer of 2011.
Tim Murray shouldn’t look at Florida as a warning sign about every free agent. Some guys work out. Some don’t. You can’t blame the GM too much for that because every GM would like almost every free agent in some way or another. But that’s not how running a pro sports team works. You don’t flood your roster with middling talent and zero leadership. You pick a few guys who can help your team and address its weakness, then you carry on with the foundation you’ve built.
It’s up to Buffalo GM Tim Murray to avoid those same pitfalls in 2014. He has to spend about $20 million in salaries just to make his team cap compliant in any manner. He also has to balance this with the idea that the Sabres are still a very young organization once again and they need time to let their kids grow. They need to create ice time for graduating youngsters like Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart, Mikhail Grigorenko and anyone else who can compete well enough in Rochester to earn an NHL slot.
And let’s be realistic; Buffalo needs to forget about the playoffs in 2015. Unless every major free agent (that includes Stastny, Niskanen, Cammalleri, Iginla, Dan Boyle, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and anyone else the Sabres could feasibly fit under the cap) signs with the Sabres in some kind of Miami Heat-esque exodus, then Buffalo will still be a non-playoff team entering a year that will conclude with the hallowed Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel draft. Making a mad dash for anyone who can strap on skates will only set this team back a few years and deny them top prospects the way it did to Florida in the last couple years.
Patience is the key. Teams don’t go from the basement of the NHL to perennial Cup contender status in one year. And if they do, there’s typically a great deal of regression the following year. If Murray is going to be forced to spend on payroll, then his signings must be replete with one and two year deals and little beyond that. The players can be middling, but they have to fit a certain role on the team. For instance if this team wants Tyler Myers, Pysyk and Ristolainen to grow as top defensemen, then there are only so many veteran blue liners this team can afford to pick up. If Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis are to be top six forwards with other current Sabres, then we only need a few others who can plug the gap.
When you fill your roster with middle-of-the-road talent, you get a team that is, at best, middle-of-the-road. We don’t want that. We don’t want regression either. We want steady, relentless progress built around young, special players. Every year, we want this team to get better, just as all the young players get older and better and closer to their primes. That’s how we’ll know this process is working in an organic fashion and not a rushed, manufactured manner that’s only being implemented to make a GM look like a genius.
If Tim Murray goes too far and starts signing guys to big four-year deals just to appease them, he’ll find himself in a situation similar to that of the Panthers and GM Dale Tallon. He’ll be sitting at the top of the draft three to four years from now, wondering how to get back to the bottom with the playoff contenders.