The new hockey year is fast approaching. Free agency opens up on Tuesday and soon we’ll be looking forward to October when the Sabres season begins anew. As WGR has been calling it, “The Road to Redemption.” Sounds kind of lame (it is) but after all success the team has had the last two seasons, it’s somewhat fitting. Somewhat. The 2007-08 season pretty much was The Road to Perdition, after all.
Let’s see how the team stacks up on defense and in goal.
On D, three of the top four spots are locked up. Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman and Jaroslav Spacek will be around. If the Sabres don’t bring anyone in via free agency or trade, the fourth spot is Andrej “Balls” Sekera’s to lose.
Given a full offseason to train and get healthy, the prospects are there for Tallinder to have his most productive season since 2005-06. And if Tallinder is going strong, Lydman plays better as a result. If that pairing is going strong, confidence can trickle down and make the entire unit better. It was that consistency that’s been missing the last year and a half or so, mainly due to injuries to Tallinder.
Spacek really stepped up into a leadership role last season and was the team’s steadiest defenseman, even when paired with a contract-weary Brian Campbell whose play crumbled under that added pressure. Spacek will sure up the powerplay and will hopefully continue to be a leader on a team that is still very much looking for its identity.
It may seem like a pretty big jump for Sekera to go from the seventh defenseman to a top four guy, but in the salary cap era, it seems players are expected to take up larger roles at younger ages. Especially now that players reach free agency at younger ages, they have less time to prove themselves. Sekera is going to be a restricted free agent at the end of next season. If he impresses enough this year, he could be looking at a big payday this time next year. Things can happen that quickly.
The development of Sekera and how much the Sabres want to rely on him should factor largely into how active they’re going to be in the free agent market. If they feel that he can step in this year, will they look to signing a top four guy?
I think they have to. Figure the Sabres sign a guy like Brooks Orpik to, predicting inflation due to the Shea Weber deal (three years, $17.5 million), something around a five-year $28 million deal. If everything goes according to plan, a player like Orpik would certainly reduce Sekera’s ice time and his price tag at the end of the season. Either way, this might be Spacek’s last season in Buffalo as he enters a contract year. While Sekera would be a five this year, he would certainly be in the top four in 2009-10.
In that season you’re looking at Tallinder and Lydman both going into the final year of their respective deals, a player of Orpik’s caliber, Sekera, Mike Weber and Nathan Paetsch (mainly because he will still be under contract). That’s a very strong starting six (on paper) that would probably cost the Sabres somewhere in the $16 million range (assuming the free agent will make $5 million and Sekera’s salary skyrockets to $3 million). Keep in mind that the team spent about $17 million last season when you factor in the contracts of Lydman, Tallinder, Paetsch, Dmitri Kalinin, Teppo Numminen, Nolan Pratt and Brian Campbell. As salaries keep rising, the Sabres could be looking at a very cost efficient defense in two years, especially if they strike out at a free agent this year.
In addition to Orpik, on the free agent end, Darcy Regier and company could be looking at John-Michael Liles, Mark Streit or way under the radar, a player like Ron Hainsey (a 27-year old, 6’3” 211 pound defenseman, who made only $900,000 last year while averaging over 20 minutes a game and scoring all eight of his goals on the powerplay for Columbus). I don’t even want to hear those Brian Campbell-might-want-to-come-back rumors.
I’m assuming a lot here, mainly because it’s difficult to predict exactly what the Sabres will do. They could very well move Sekera into the top four, re-sign Teppo as the fifth man, and rotate him with Paetsch and Weber to round out the corps. Bringing back Pratt is always an option as well, but it would make the most sense to choose between Numminen and Pratt as the resident “old guy.”
Jaroslav Spacek $3.300 million
Toni Lydman $3.150 million
Henrik Tallinder $2.9 million
Nathan Paetsch $800,000
Andrej Sekera $$659,000
Mike Weber $551,000
Dmitri Kalinin UFA (Darcy already said Kalinin’s days in Buffalo are over)
Teppo Numminen UFA
Nolan Pratt UFA
In goal, the Sabres are looking to give Ryan Miller a long term deal. Whether or not Miller would be interested is another story. He’s a top eight goalie without question, but with the market, he’ll be making top four money. Look at Henrik Lundqvist’s six-year $41.25 million deal as a benchmark for what Miller will be looking for. However, if I were the Sabres, I would front load the contract as much as possible so it’s easier to move him in three or four years (especially if that Enroth kid really pans out).
I’m a huge Miller fan; we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in the playoffs in 2006-07 if it weren’t for his heroics, but you need to keep all of your options open. In three years, if Enroth is the better choice, then at least the opportunity to trade a long term contract is there. That’s a worry for another day, though.
Who is going to back Miller up in 2008-09 is the bigger question. The free agent pickings are slim to say the least. The Jocelyn Thibault Experiment backfired terribly but it makes sense to bring in someone with experience instead of letting a young unknown take up the role. Perhaps the Sabres could snatch up a Johan Holmqvist, Patrick Lalime, J.S. Aubin or even an Alex Auld.
Buffalo just needs someone reliable that can play around 20 games and hopefully win half of them. As long as the backup gives the team a chance, it’s definitely an upgrade over the black hole that was on the end of the bench last year.
Miller $3.5 million
Dead to us (Thibault) UFA