How to be the Sabres GM in three easy steps: Step 3 – Free agency

It’s so easy, even Bucky can do it.

The title of General Manager of the Sabres is a hot commodity these days, I guess. Apparently there’s a lot of people who think they could do a better job than Darcy Regier. It seems to be a fun enough gig, anyway.

So, live from my mother’s basement (I am, in fact, writing this from my mother’s basement. It’s nice and cool down here), I decided I’d join in on the fun with a little GM series of my own.

Ah, July. It’s a hockey fan’s favorite month of the year. Along with October, of course. And the trade deadline of March. And the playoffs in April. Oh, and June’s draft. Okay, so there really isn’t a dull moment in the calender year of a puck head. August sucks, though, unless you’re a beat writer, who probably exhausts an entire year’s vacation in their one month of free time. 

As the calender turns to the seventh month of the year this Sunday, the jersey colors of some of the league’s top players will make the change with it as free agency begins in the NHL.

July 1 is a date most fans in every NHL city have circled on their calender each summer. Over the years, we’ve seen some pretty big names change teams. And there’s nothing more a hockey fan enjoys more than a shiny new player to call their own.

With Zach Parise and Ryan Suter highlighting this year’s crop and not much else to speak of beyond the top pair, there’s sure to be one hell of a frenzy next week.

As Sabres fans, it’ll be fun watching as the league’s heavyweights go back and forth in their battle for the services of the biggest names. But the biggest question this year is: Are the Sabres a heavyweight?

I’m not so sure yet.

Yeah, we’ve seen all the effort Terry Pegula and Co. have done to improve the organization, both internally and cosmetically. Their efforts are to be applauded. But the team still has yet to win under their tutelage. And with winning comes being capable of competing with the big boys — something they haven’t shown they’re capable of doing just yet.

You get the sense this year heading in that the Sabres are being uber cautious, especially after failing so miserably last year with Ville Leino.

A lot of the intrigue that comes with having an owner like Pegula in town is that we can gawk over the possibilities of Parise, Suter or whatever other big name you fancy potentially suiting up for in blue and gold. But it still doesn’t feel realistic that the Sabres can attract them away from the Red Wings, Penguins or Rangers of the league.

Sure, it’s a possibility. But to this point, it is just that and nothing more. We have yet to see Darcy make the big trade or sign the big name. In many regards, the transactions made over the past two years are much of the same we’ve seen in the past, it’s just cost the Sabres a little more money.

Sometimes, I can’t help but think the Sabres are still playing catch-up with the rest of the league, and you get that sense heading into Sunday. 

Of course, if there’s one thing we know about the Sabres’ GM, it’s that there probably isn’t another general manager in the entire NHL who’s better at keeping his cards to his chest than Regier. He could prove me wrong, and probably will.

So what should we expect from the Sabres in free agency?

Over the past week, we’ve witnessed what could turn into Regier’s most successful draft as Sabres GM, but we’ve also yet to see that required trade to shake up the roster of a team that’s going nowhere as currently constructed.

Me? I’m keeping my expectations low, ready to welcome any surprises thrown our way with open arms.

Below, I’ve put together a free agency wish list for the Sabres. It’s not necessarily a list of the biggest names or even of the guys I want most on the team. It’s my closest guess to what the Sabres’ actual list looks like at the moment.

Before we get to that list, though, lets look at what the Sabres roster would if the season began tomorrow as currently constructed to get a feel for what the team might still need.

Forwards

Thomas Vanek – Derek Roy – Jason Pominville

Marcus Foligno – Tyler Ennis – Drew Stafford

Ville Leino – Cody Hodgson – Nathan Gerbe

Matt Ellis – Cody McCormick – Patrick Kaleta

Others: Corey Tropp, Luke Adam, Mikhail Grigorenko

*Note that obviously I’m banking on Ennis and Kaleta re-signing.

*Also note that all line combos, both here and below, are tentatitive. They’re just there to give an idea of where a player could fit.

In terms of bodies, the Sabres are all filled up at forward. In terms of talent, there’s still plenty of room for an addition or two. Three things probably stand out to you here: 1. Get Derek Roy off my team! 2. Why isn’t Grigorenko our No. 1 center?! 3. Matt Ellis… really?

Here’s a few things to consider:

  • I think at this point, there’s a good chance Roy remains a Sabre for next season. As hard on the ears as that may be for some, it’s not the worst thing in the world, I suppose. I was criticized for overvaluing him in my trades post this past week, and perhaps rightfully so. But you’re kidding yourself if you think Roy has no value. It’s discouraging to think Regier hasn’t been able to deal Roy yet, especially if it’s because he wants a No. 1 center’s ransom for him. But with the demand for centers so high around the league, Regier is right if he’s holding out for the price of a No. 2 pivot. Believe it or not, a center who scores does have plenty of value in the NHL. Just because he had a bad season is not grounds to dismiss his worth. It’d be nice if Roy could be used to bring in a bigger name, but I’m okay with him staying another season if it doesn’t happen. The notions of giving Roy away for nothing are absurd.
  • Lets reserve anointing Grigorenko our lord and savior at least until development camp. As of this post, I’m operating as if he doesn’t make the team next season, even though I do think that he will.
  • I’m not sold yet on Foligno playing top-six minutes like so many of you seem to be banking on (he’s only played 14 games for Christ’s sake), although I’m confortable keeping the Foligno-Ennis-Stafford line intact heading in.
  • When you really look at it, the Sabres probably do have three quality lines even if another name isn’t brought in. But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. If the Sabres can bring in a player or two so that one of McCormick, Kaleta or Ellis aren’t needed next season, so be it. Ideally, I’m looking for more depth. Adding a top-tier name to the top six or filling out the forth line with more skill would each accomplish that.

Defensemen

Tyler Myers – Robyn Regehr

Christian Ehrhoff – Alexander Sulzer

Andrej Sekera – Jordan Leopold

Others: Brayden McNabb, Mike Weber

What a log jam. The more I think about it, the more it would amaze me if the Sabres went into the season with eight defensemen. There has to be some kind of deal to free things up, right?

  • McNabb could always start the year in Rochester, but why hold him back if he’s better than two or three of your starting defensemen already?
  • Mike Weber seems so expendable at this point. I can’t think of a single reason for him to stay.
  • Sulzer stays on this list simply because he played great with Ehrhoff down the stretch. Ideally, though, do we really want him to play 82 games next season?
  • Overall, I’d be absolutely shocked to see the Sabres sign a defenseman in free agency. Shocked. In fact, it won’t happen. I think.

Sabres Free Agent Wish List:

1. Zach Parise, LW, UFA

What? Parise’s at the top of every team’s wish list. You’d be insane not to have him here. If you believe rumors, the Sabres’ name is nowhere to be found in the Parise sweepstakes right now. But like I said before, Regier is pretty damn good at not tipping his hand, so perhaps there’s still a chance they make a run at the top free agent. He’d certainly be the big splash we’ve all been looking for, and you’ve got to believe the Sabres are at least thinking about it. In order for Parise to come to Buffalo, the Sabres’ offer would have to be more attractive than playing alongside Sidney Crosby or in front of his childhood neighbors. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I suppose we should stay open to anything until the ink is dry on his new deal. If the sky falls and Regier does nab Parise, maybe this whole Hockey Heaven thing is coming to fruition faster than we thought. Parise’s going to break the bank with his new deal. A trade would probably be needed for Sabres to accommodate his demands.

How he fits: 

Parise – Roy – Stafford

Vanek – Hodgson – Leino

Foligno – Ennis – Pominville

Gerbe – McCormick – Kaleta

Chances he wears blue and gold: Slim to moderate


2. Shane Doan, RW, UFA

Doan’s name is a popular one on Sabres fan’s wish lists, no doubt. With the Coyotes’ future up in the air, it appears as though Doan is destined for free agency. His grit and intangibles would make him a popular signing in Buffalo, but at what price should we draw the line? I’m a big fan of Doan’s, but I think I’ve soured on him more than other Sabres fans would like. What gets me most is his age. Doan will be 36 in October and isn’t getting any younger. He hasn’t scored more than 60 points since 2008, and his 50 points this past season was his lowest total since 2001. For the right price, Doan’s leadership would be a great addition to a young team. But with the slim pickings on the open market this year, it’s hard to imagine he settles for anything less than the $4.5 million he made last season. Sign me up for anything under $4 million, though.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy- Pominville

Leino – Hodgson – Doan

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Gerbe – McCormick – Kaleta

Chances he wears blue and gold: Moderate to reasonable

3. Kyle Wellwood, C, UFA

Wellwood is interesting. On one hand, you see a center who can contribute 40 points, win faceoffs with the best of them and play some solid defense. On the other, you wonder where the hell he disappeared to from 2007 until he resurrected his career in Winnipeg this past season. I have him at No. 3 on this list because he fills an obvious need in the place vacated by Paul Gaustad. He’d be a player Lindy Ruff would love, certainly. If I’m the Sabres, I don’t want Cody McCormick centering my fourth line. Wellwood could be that piece and also play third line minutes. What remains to be seen is how much more money Wellwood’s increased production this past year earns him in a market where centers are valued highly. I’m not going over $3 million/per for him.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Leino – Hodgson – Gerbe

Kaleta – Wellwood – McCormick

Chances he wears blue and gold: As good as any

4. Peter Mueller, RW, UFA

Many were surprised when the Avalanche failed to tender an offer to the RFA Mueller, thus allowing him to test unrestricted free agency. The 2006 No. 8 overall draft pick his a talented forward, there’s no debating that. For potential buyers, though, it’s Mueller’s head that will drive his price way down. Mueller scored 54 points his rookie season with Phoenix, but he’s had just 89 points since through four season marred by concussion issues. He’s a risky signing, but if his price stays low due to apprehensive buyers, it could be a nice pickup for the Sabres. He’d bring along some really nice depth scoring, which is much-needed if the Sabres want to contend next season. A low-risk one-year, $3 million deal is probably a good ceiling for Mueller’s services.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Leino – Hodgson – Mueller

Gerbe – McCormick – Kaleta

Chances he wears blue and gold: Moderate


5. Dustin Penner, LW, UFA

Okay, I’m going to make a case for Penner here that will probably spark a few groans, but just hear me out. Keep in mind this is all assuming he doesn’t re-up with the Kings, which is what is most likely to happen at this point. Once a 30-goal scorer, Penner fits really well with the Sabres in a reduced role if he can be had at the right price. Depth scoring is key, and his clutch contributions in the postseason were a huge part of the Kings’ run to the Cup. He’s now won two Stanley Cups throughout his seven-year career. That’s two more than most players on the Sabres’ roster has, if you’re keeping count. It’d be right to expect leadership from Penner as well as a plenty of pancakes, which may or may not be a good thing. If he can be signed under the $3 million mark (which remains to be seen), he’d be a nice addition to a Sabres roster that could use a little extra size and timely scoring.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Penner – Hodgson – Leino

Gerbe – McCormick – Kaleta

Chances he wears blue and gold: Moderate to slim

6. Jason Arnott, C, UFA

Reasons Arnott is an attractive option for the Sabres are obvious. He’s big. He wins. He plays center. He can score. However, the age factor comes into play for a player who will be 38 in October. Though well past his prime, Arnott would bring stellar leadership to a group of Sabres lacking in the area. He’ll likely, come pretty cheap, too, and could slide right into the fourth line where he’d fit right in. The question is not whether he can play, but whether or not the Sabres are looking to bring in a veteran who would probably rather spend what is likely his final season with a contending team.

How he fits: 

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Gerbe – Hodgson – Leino

Kaleta – Arnott – McCormick

Chances he wears blue and gold: Moderate

 7. Jay McClement, C, UFA

Adding McClement would be similar to signing Wellwood; he brings a bigger body with faceoff ability and a little secondary scoring to the third or fourth lines. McClement has never been a plus player in his seven-year NHL career, but has proven the ability to score upwards of 25 points on multiple occasions. I doubt he’d command anything more than $2 million to fill the Gaustad void.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Gerbe – Hodgson – Leino

Kaleta – McClement – McCormick

Chances he wears blue and gold: As good as any

8. Jiri Hudler, RW, UFA

The idea of the Sabres adding Hudler probably makes some of your cringe with the memories of Ville Leino’s season still fresh in our heads. Much like Leino. Hudler is coming off a career best season with the Red Wings where he scored 25 goals and 50 points. The difference between Hudler and Leino is that Hudler has been a more consistent scorer than Leino was before his career year in Philly, so it may not be right to compare the two. If he takes a discount, Hudler could be an excellent third/second-line winger on the Sabres. But it still seems like a risky venture to sign a player who will probably want at least $4 million if he hits the open market. In all likelihood, though, he’ll be returning to Detroit.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Hudler – Hodgson – Leino

Kaleta – McCormick – Gerbe

Chances he wears blue and gold: Slim

 9. Olli Jokinen, C, UFA

The first reaction is probably something along the lines of “hell no,” but Jokinen’s numbers this past season in Calgary suggest he could be a nice option should Regier find an offer he likes for Derek Roy. In many regards, Jokinen and Roy are the same player. The difference is Jokinen stands a good five inches taller than Roy. If the Sabres were to sign Jokinen, they wouldn’t be getting the guy who scored 89 and 91 points in back-to-back seasons in Florida, but after notching more than 50 points his past two seasons (61 last year), he’s a guy who could provide quality scoring as a third-line pivot. The problem is, given his production, I’m sure Jokinen will receive at least $4.5 million from someone desperate and as long as Roy’s in the fold, there’s no reason to add Jokinen.

How he fits:

Vanek – Hodgson – Pominville

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Leino – Jokinen – Gerbe

Ellis – McCormick – Kaleta

Chances he wears blue and gold: Slim

10. Ryan O’Reilly, C, RFA

I’m trying to stay away from restricted free agents here, because the chances of the Sabres offering anyone an offer sheet is slim to none. But with O’Reilly, it could make sense. The Avalanche haven’t even begun talks with the 21-year-old center yet, and he’d be an obvious fit for the Sabres down the middle. The thing is it would likely take an outrageous offer sheet to steal him away from Colorado, especially since the Avs have a ton of cap space and could probably match just about every sane offer thrown their way. An intriguing idea from a Sabres perspective, but not a realistic one.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Ennis – Hodgson – Stafford

Foligno – O’Reilly – Leino

Kaleta – McCormick – Gerbe

Chances he wears blue and gold: Slim to none


Wildcard: Alexander Semin, LW, UFA

I know, I know. It’s taboo to mention Semin’s name in regards to the Sabres. With his immense talent yet poor work ethic/threat to bolt to the KHL, he’s the ultimate boom-or-bust signing. But for a team willing to take the risk, there’s still that chance he performs to his potential, which means you’ve just signed a 50-goal scorer. For a team who whiffs on Parise, Semin could be their consolation prize, and if it’s the Sabres, Semin at his best looks awfully attractive and would give the team three lines which could score at any given time — something the Sabres haven’t had since Briere and Drury took off. You’ve got to admit, it is a little tiny bit fun to think of Semin and Grigorenko playing side-by-side for years to come. If the Sabres go off the deep end and sign him, they’ll just be praying the arenas they’re playing together aren’t located in Russia.

How he fits:

Vanek – Roy – Pominville

Semin – Hodgson – Leino

Foligno – Ennis – Stafford

Gerbe – McCormick – Kaleta

Chances he wears blue and gold: Get a grip

Other potential options:

Lee Stempniak, LW, UFA; Gilbert Brule, C, UFA; Samuel Pahlsson, C, UFA; P.A. Parenteau, RW, UFA; Zenon Konopka, C, UFA; Travis Moen, LW, UFA.

You almost certainly don’t agree with Brandon’s opinion on this matter, so please, let him hear about it in the comment box or be sure to follow him on Twitter @B_Schlag and express your distaste.

GINO_PIZZA

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