With the NHL Entry Draft behind us, the new hockey year is fast approaching. Free agency opens up next 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 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 where the team stands up front right now.
The Sabres have 11 forwards under contract, costing the team $28.959 million. Steve Bernier, Paul Gaustad, Dan Paille and Clarke MacArthur still need new contracts as restricted free agents. Signing restricteds to offer sheets seems to be a new fad among general managers, however these players aren’t the type other teams should break that bank for. Each should be able to sign multi-year deals with the Sabres.
Paille and Bernier are both former first round picks. While Paille is on the verge of breaking out (I can’t wait to see where the Sabres’ cap number is on him since they’ll mainly be paying him for potential), Bernier is still a bit of a mystery. “Big Bear” stormed out of the gates in that Nashville game but fell off the map after.
Part of it can be attributed to be young and adjusting to a new team, a team that was searching for an identity all year. Replacing the distraction that had become the Brian Campbell situation probably put some added pressure on him.
“This is a tough part, but I think the toughest part right now for me is when you get traded you get a big push, a big push of energy, you want to prove yourself,” Bernier said. “After a couple of days you get a big down, and I did not sleep good the last couple of nights because of it. That’s the toughest thing I think, to make sure you play the same way for a period of time, that’s going to be something that I have to learn pretty fast.”
That was Bernier on March 5, about a week after the trade. Hopefully he settles in right away at the beginning of the season. He seemed all right with Vanek and Roy when he first came to Buffalo but his play tailing off and an injury didn’t help his case. Time will tell.
MacArthur is interesting because he’s shown sparks of being a very good hockey player, but also disappears from time to time. He’s locked in as one of the first call ups, but it wouldn’t shock me if young guns like Tim Kennedy or Nathan Gerbe leapfrogged him by the time training camp lets out. The General is the type of player that could easily be moved in a package deal.
The centerpiece in that sort of trade? Three players mainly fit that bill and they’re each entering their walk year. Maxim Afinogenov is making $3.5 million, Tim Connolly is set to rake in $3.5 as well, no matter how many games he doesn’t play and Ales Kotalik, at $2.5 million is the third viable option.
Forwards hitting restricted free agency after 2008-09 include Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville. The Sabres have made it public knowledge that they would like to lock Pominville up before that time comes but the longer they wait, the higher his price tag will climb, ala Campbell.
It’s not unreasonable to figure he could make an average of $5.5 million a season over five or six years (or something crazier that we were only joking about a few months ago) with the way salaries have been going as of late.
Regier was hesitant to give Campbell that sort of security, but maybe they think differently of Pominville. A Lady Byng nomination and the fact that he was the captain as they stumbled down the stretch (although he actually did a very good job publicly in the role, always being accountable), may factor into them actually giving him that kind of money.
Stafford went through the stereotypical sophomore slump, having to deal with injuries in addition to a heavier workload. Towards the end of the season, he seemed to settle in on the fourth line with Adam Mair and Pat Kaleta, but he’s expected to be a top line talent.
If the Sabres aren’t careful, he could turn into the American Kotalik–a player with a ton of talent and size but doesn’t use either often enough. It could also look like the Sabres choose between Bernier and Stafford since they’re similar players. It will be easier to figure that scenario out after Bernier gets a contract.
It doesn’t look like Mike Ryan will be around unless he signs a two-way contract which would keep him in Portland and only in Buffalo in emergency situations. That wouldn’t be a bad deal. Sure I won a generic Sabres wooden stick signed by him that hangs not-so-proudly on my wall, but I’m not holding my breath for it to become a collector’s item.
And speaking of wasted roster spots, let’s not forget Andrew Peters is still under contract. Sure he may be a good “locker room guy” but it doesn’t help the team pick up wins on the ice. Anyone against waiving him? Anyone?
With an abundance of forwards, don’t expect the Sabres to dive headfirst into that end of the free agent pool. While veteran additions like a Rolston or Roberts (or heck even a Darcy Tucker) would be nice, the reality is that, up front, the Sabres seem pretty much set. Regier has publicly questioned Afinogenov’s future, but a trade would likely bring in a defenseman and open up a full-time roster spot for a guy like Kaleta.
And with extensions for Pominville and Ryan Miller likely on the horizon, it’s like signing two free agents next season.
2008/09 Salary Numbers:
Vanek: $8 million
Hecht: $3.8 million
Roy: $3.5 million
Afinogenov: $3.5 million
Connolly: $3.5 million
Kotalik: $2.5 million
Pominville: $1.375 million