UPDATED Sabres free agency assessment

Christian Ehrhoff

The Sabres made two more moves on Wednesday night, acquiring the rights to defenseman Christian Ehrhoff from the Islanders and sending the rights to Steve Montador to the Blackhawks.

The Islanders had received Ehrhoff’s rights from Vancouver earlier in the week, but when the team could not come to terms with the 28-year-old, they unloaded him while they could still get something in return; Ehrhoff will become an unrestricted free agent on Friday.

Here’s what the Sabres contract situation looks like now:

Islanders’ GM Garth Snow would not give exact figures for what the team offered Ehrhoff during an interview Wednesday evening, but reportedly said the offer was “well north” of the deal Ehrhoff’s former teammate, Kevin Bieksa, resigned for in Vancouver — 5 years, $23 million ($4.6 mil/year).

Bieksa and his agent cost themselves a few million dollars by resigning now and not waiting until the free agency period opened up, which is important to note because anyone who watched the Stanley Cup finals would think Bieksa would sign the bigger deal. Ehrhoff is regarded as a good defenseman who contributes on offense, but had a lousy finish to the postseason (minus-7 in the finals against Boston).

Ehrhoff’s deal, assuming Buffalo can sign him before Friday when free agency opens, will likely be worth more than the $4.02 million Robyn Regehr will make next season. Ehrhoff would be the fifth defenseman signed to contract, with Andrej Sekera, Marc-Andre Gragnanni and Mike Weber being the remaining unsigned d-men (all RFAs). The Sabres still need to do something with Shaone Morrisonn, but I don’t expect to see any more additions to the blue line.

Nathan Gerbe can barely see over the boards, but man the kid can play. He hits, too!

Buffalo finalized a deal with Nathan Gerbe this week, which is reported to be worth $4.3 million over three years. This was an expected resigning, and he deserved a raise from his previous $850,000 contract.

His new deal makes our third line very expensive, more expensive than our second line would be even if Derek Roy was put on it. It’s funny how it works out like that but isn’t that big of a deal when you consider the second line is thrown off by Tyler Ennis’ entry-level deal and the fact that we had no say in Brad Boyes’ contract and the possibility Jochen Hecht could be moved to the fourth line, or worse.

The Sabres will likely make at least one more move to bring in a forward, but the blockbuster-ness of the move remains to be seen. Everyone in town is forming an opinion on Brad Richards, and this is where my fandom and objectivity collide. Richards is the best free agent that will be on the market this year but also the most expensive. The Sabres have a shot at signing him but would likely have to offer him much more than his performance is worth (cap hit last season was $7.8 million).

As a fan, I couldn’t care less how much he costs. Spend to the cap every year, Terry! Get me the biggest and best names out there and don’t come back until our lineup is stacked.

The problem is the shortsightedness of doing so. I’m worried about this with Ehrhoff but even more so with Richards. This league has a salary cap, and signing players to long deals for way more than they’re worth cripples the team’s future options (it also wastes money, but when your owner is a billionaire that tends not to matter as much).

Terry Pegula obviously wants to put his mark on this franchise from head to toe, but with new owners and/or general managers often comes gross overspending that, several years down the road, gets teams back into the same straits that caused the personnel change in the first place.

The key is to sign players like Gerbe, who even at $1.4 million will still likely over-perform his contract. Brad Richards probably would do well here, as will Christian Ehroff, but they’d have to have career years to live up to the contracts they are likely to get.

Any rich guy can buy players who are good relative to other players. It takes someone special to negotiate for players who are good relative to their deals. There’s no doubting Pegula will never stop loving this team, but we’ll soon see what type of owner he’s going to be.

Other thoughts:

  • If the Sabres don’t make a big move this offseason, don’t sweat it. Have you seen the list of forwards who will be UFAs next year? Very nice.
  • Ehrhoff has been a very good defenseman before, but another guy I would have liked to see us go after was James Wisniewski, who had his rights sent from Montreal to Columbus Wednesday. He, too, looks to enter some of his best years at age 27 but would be a cheaper option than Ehrhoff.
  • What happens if the Sabres can’t sign Ehrhoff by Friday? He becomes an unrestricted free agent and is free to sign with any team in the league, including Buffalo.
  • Tyler Myers: lock him up NOW.
  • Still kind of hoping for T.J. Oshie. He dangles and he bangs. Sign him up. However…  Guess I’m updating my update… report out of St. Louis is Oshie has signed a one-year deal to stay with the Blues. Maybe next year, huh?
  • Looking for a good omen for the potential Brad Richards-to-Buffalo move? The forward has 716 career points, the area code for Buffalo and Western New York.

Sabres offseason assessment

A 40th consecutive Stanley Cup-less season in Buffalo can only mean one thing: the team has several areas it can address in free agency, which opens this Friday, July 1.

The timely scoring and stout defensive zone coverage that propelled the Sabres from 14th to 7th in the Eastern Conference standings fell apart in a first-round playoff collapse to Philadelphia. The defense showed its youth and the offense underperformed.

Darcy Regier, Terry Pegula & Co. are already on their way to fixing those problems. They made an addition to the Buffalo blue line this weekend, receiving veteran Robyn Regehr in trade with Calgary that also brought back Ales Kotalik in exchange for Chris Butler and prospect Paul Byron. While he is known for his defensive abilities, at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Regehr also brings a physical presence to the Sabres defense that it has desperately needed the last several seasons.

Darcy says he sees hope for Kotalik’s NHL career, but the rest of us aren’t so sure. The Sabres still have several personnel decisions to make, so let’s take a look at what players the team has under contract.

 Several things should jump out at you:

  • They need a top-level center to play on line 1 or 2.
  • After the Regehr trade, they still only have four defensemen signed; three if you count ones who actually play something resembling defense.
  • They need to sign a backup goalie.
  • There is a ton of money invested in lines 3 and 4.

Center

The first thing I’ll address is the center. I’m ready to part ways with Tim Connolly. He does provide some value to the team, especially as a penalty killer, but it’s time to move on. Connolly has been a member of the Sabres longer than any other player on the roster, but it’s time to pass the torch down to Jochen Hecht and make way for a more productive player.

Letting Connolly walk leaves a hole on the second line, but I think that spot may be best for Derek Roy. He’s certainly a fan favorite, but I’m not as high on him as most other people are. He takes a lot of bad penalties and he doesn’t produce like a top NHL center. His career-best 32 goals in 2007-08 put him just 20th in the league. Bottom line is I wouldn’t pick a team to win the Cup with Derek Roy as its top center.

However, there is only one player in free agency who could dethrone Roy as the best centerman on the team, and that’s Brad Richards. Richards has reached 91 points twice in his career and is the best forward to be an unrestricted free agent on Friday, but also the most expensive. The last five seasons, his cap hit has been $7.8 million. Buffalo can afford a salary in that range, but they will have to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.

The rest of the UFA class seems a little pricey for the expected production, especially because it is made up of a lot of older players in their late 30s. Ville Leino (27) is a younger player on the list that has some value, but he seems likely to return to the Flyers.

The restricted free agent side offers more talent but many of those players, like Steven Stamkos and Zach Parise, are rumored to be resigning with their current teams. One player down the RFA list a little ways that I do like is St. Louis young gun T.J. Oshie, who could be a nice fill-in on the second line — that is if he doesn’t resign with the Blues.

Defense

The Regehr move helps clean things up on the defensive end, but there’s still some clutter to be sorted out. The easiest thing to say, now that Butler is gone, is just resign them all. Steve Montador isn’t bad and Andrej Sekera has some real potential. Mike Weber is okay for now and he can battle it out with Marc-Andre Gragnani for the last spot in the lineup.

The only real issue is Shaone Morrisonn. The man only managed five points in 62 games this year and seemed perplexed by defensive zone assignments. Morrisonn averaged 16:10 in ice time per game — seventh among Buffalo defensemen. The only thing he had going for him was not being worse than Craig Rivet, but even that ended for him midway during the year. He doesn’t play on the power play and he occasionally kills penalties. You really hope to get a lot more out of a $2 million player.

The Sabres could do nothing and hope he finds his game, or they can waive him down to the AHL and just eat his cap hit (helps having a rich owner). It’d be nice if they could find someone to take him, but other teams have good scouting departments, too.

Resigning everyone is the easiest scenario, but there are good free agents out there if Darcy is still looking to add depth on the back end, which is never a bad idea. I really liked how Kevin Bieksa played for Vancouver in the playoffs, and he’ll be a UFA, but I have a feeling every other GM in the league also saw the playoffs and would like Bieksa on his team, too. His current deal was worth $3.75 million, but after a strong playoff performance that number will go way up. He probably signs back with Vancouver, but if not look for him to go to a team with deep pockets. With one $4 million defenseman already added, I don’t see the Sabres going out and signing an even more expensive player.

James Wisniewski and Ian White are younger, mid-priced defensmen who will be UFAs, if those names interest you.  I was interested in Christian Ehroff before he forgot how to play hockey during the Western Conference playoffs. All are in the $3 million range, but even that may be too high for the Sabres to spend. Shea Weber and Drew Doughty are big name RFAs, and while I’d love to have either of them, their going rates will likely be too high for Buffalo.

I’m interested to see how Gragnani develops. He has work to do still, but he led the Sabres in postseason scoring and that didn’t happen on accident. The kid is an offensive threat and could be our next power play quarterback. I don’t know how much that means for him right away this season, but if I’m in charge Gragnani gets a legitimate shot to make the team straight out of camp.

Backup goalie

Easy. Patrick Lalime can go play bar league somewhere while Jhonas Enroth signs a nice little deal. If Enroth plays his cards right he could probably get over $1 million just on the potential he’s shown. If not I bet someone else would give it to him. From the Sabres’ perspective, holding on to him for trade bait is another good reason. Ryan Miller is in the prime of his career and will play 60-some odd games. I’ve seen nothing but good things from Enroth, but Miller may be the best goalie in the league — in the world — on a consistent basis. Maybe they sent Enroth somewhere in a deadline deal over the next few years and pick up a scorer.

Lines 3 and 4

This is a real problem. I slid Kotalik in for Cody McCormick on the fourth line so his $3 million inflates the numbers, but it still should make Darcy weary. I liked what Brad Boyes did at the end of the regular season and Hecht is a core member of the team who provides leadership for the younger guys while playing a more limited role.

The problem is that when you add in what Nathan Gerbe will likely get — they better resign Gerbe — you end up with a third line that costs $8.5 million. That’s not how winning hockey teams operate. You need bargain players at the bottom who over-perform their small contracts so you have money at the top for your stars. Why pay guys that much to play 15-17 minutes a game when you could develop a younger guy for a fraction of the cost? (Zack Kassian, maybe? I can dream…)

Paul Gaustad has one year left on his $2.3 million deal, but that’s a way too much to pay a fourth-liner. Kaleta and McCorick could both be making under a million on the fourth line. That’s a typical fourth-line, grind-it-out type of guy. He can win faceoffs? That’ll be good to put on his resume this time next year while he’s packing up his house. One of the top centermen will take the defensive-zone faceoffs, not the fourth line.

Then there’s Kotalik. This one is an enigma, I tell you. $3 million is a lot to pay a guy to score in shootouts. I don’t know what the plan is here.

Other thoughts:

  • Mike Grier often gets forgotten. He may retire, but I like having him around. He’s welcome back on my team, just not for $1.5 mil.
  • See Tyler Myers on that chart? He has one year left at $1.3 million. How much do you think he’ll be worth as an RFA next summer? I’d try to work out an extension with him now. He’s good for it.
  • I’m excited to have Rochester back as the Sabres’ farm team. I’ve never paid to go to an Amerks game, but following a team 70 miles away and having your prospects there is much better than having them 500 miles away in Portland. It’s just better for business.
  • NHL draft was last weekend, and it has almost nothing in common with the NFL draft. The Sabres did pretty good… we think. Check back in six years.
  • I played an old NHL video game during the draft because, aside from the players’ sisters, it was kind of boring after round one. I played as the Sabres. My first thought after turning off the game: Man I really don’t miss Kotalik at all. Spoke too soon.
  • The NHL and NFL schedules are out… The Bills play the Jets on Nov. 6 and Sabres play the Jets on Nov. 8. That has to be the closest streak in all of sports, right?
  • Want to do some searching for yourself? Check out capgeek.com for more.