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.
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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.

Three wide receivers you need to know

As the preseason progresses, some players raise their fantasy value, while others squander it. Here’s a quick look at players you may look like a genius for adding.

Laurent Robinson, WR, STL

I consider Laurent Robinson a must-have at this point in the season. Going into camp, Donnie Avery was the number one receiver, but many people liked Robinson better from a fantasy standpoint anyway, citing Avery’s inability to produce (zero 100-yard games last year, and topped out in week 1 with 6 receptions). With Avery sidelined for the year with a reported ACL tear, Robinson becomes the only Ram worth having on your fantasy team besides Steven Jackson.

I know that the Rams offense leaves a lot to be desired–especially while they work in a rookie QB–but Robinson is now an uncontested number one receiver on an NFL team, and that means he has fantasy value.

Looking for increased roles in the offense behind Robinson are Mardy Gilyard, Brandon Gibson, Danny Amendola and Keenan Burton; but I’m not sure anyone besides their family knows that they play in the NFL. Stay away.

Legedu Naanee, WR, SD

Naanee will be the second receiver in Mexico North until Vincent Jackson returns to the lineup. Jackson is suspended to start the season, and threatens to hold out even longer if his contract demands aren’t met; perhaps the entire season.

Jackson seems pretty serious. Right now, I’d pencil Naanee in to be the Chargers’ second starter for the next 17 weeks. I think Antonio Gates is still the most trusted target in the offense, but with Phillip Rivers at the helm, all things are possible.

I recommended Naanee as a pickup because I’m assuming Malcom Floyd has already been spoken for in your league. He’s the top wide out for the Chargers right now. He’s owned in only 64 percent of all ESPN leagues, but those are the smart leagues that all of you are in, right? Take Floyd if he’s there, but if not, Naanee could be a great sleeper.

Greg Camarillo, WR, MIN

Camarillo swapped letters this week when he was traded from MIA to MIN. He could start week 1 as high as number two on the Vikings’ depth chart behind Bernard Berrian, who I recommended to you last week. (Berrian is now the fourth most added player in ESPN leagues. Told you.)

Brett Favre has looked less-than-stellar thus far through the preseason, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’ll make things happen with whatever receivers he has at his disposal–and right now Camarillo looks to be one such option.

With Sidney Rice out for half the year and the status of Percy Harvin still up in the air (or flat on his face, passed out), Camarillo, Berrian and TE Visanthe Shiancoe should see increased involvement in the passing game.


Other names I’m hoping you already know (you’re behind the 8 ball if you don’t):

Devin Aromashodu, WR, CHI
-Arian Foster, RB, HOU
-Jacoby Jones, WR, HOU
-Derek Anderson, QB, ARIZ
David Buehler, K, DAL

That’s right. A kicker. He’s far from a lock, but has huge potential. Could be the first waiver wire wonder kicker ever.

While Miami celebrates, small-markets weap

It was an ending fit for a king. Finding out which team LeBron James chose to play for via text message wouldn’t do the situation justice; nor would seeing it scroll across the bottom of your screen during a baseball game. “The Decision” was all anyone in the sports world was talking about, and having an hour special on ESPN was a fitting way to make the announcement. How they went about conducting the interview I didn’t care for so much, but that’s another story (and besides, who tucks a shirt into jeans?).    

I got the feeling James was going to the Heat in the days leading up to the event. The Knicks needed too much work. The Nets are even worse than the Knicks, and you don’t want your friend as a boss. He couldn’t wear 23 in Chicago (but judging from the picture it wouldn’t have mattered anyway), and Los Angeles seemed like a long shot. All that left was Cleveland and Miami. Once Wade and Bosh announced they were both going to play with the Heat, it really hurt the Cavs’ chances. No Tom Izzo, and now no free agent signings. All they had left to offer LeBron was sentimental value, but millionaires don’t tend to listen to people yelling “you owe us.” If things are bigger in Texas, then they’re certainly hotter in Florida–Miami especially. For the spectacle of LeBron James, his brand, and his legacy, the aura of Miami seemed too much to ignore.    

Thursday morning, things got crazy. Every radio show and sports site was talking about LeBron. Nick Mendola may or may not have broken news that LeBron was scheduled to fly to Miami and meet with Pat Riley. Whichever guest host was murdering the Jim Rome show that day (I know, I know. Cut me some slack… that’s what WGR has on when I get my lunch break) had all kinds of people on from Ohio saying how LeBron better come back and how much they will hate him if he doesn’t. Facebook and Twitter were loaded with predictions and suggestions… some less serious than others.    

About five minutes before the start of the show, I posted one last thing about LeBron: “Hoping he stays in Cleveland.” I had given a lot of thought to where I actually wanted him to go. (I am becoming more and more aware of this sick/awesome obsession avid sports fans have with having an opinion on everything in sports; i.e. if you flip on a random college football game let’s say, and about three minutes into it you find yourself beginning to root for one of them to win. That’s something I could talk about for hours, but I bring it up only to discuss how I decided what I wanted LeBron to do.) Comparisons are often made between Cleveland and Buffalo as sports cities (mostly for losing), and I couldn’t help but feel bad for them. They’re a bigger city than we are, both we’re both considered to be small-markets. 
 
When James finally said he was going down to South Beach, I was really kind of sad. I don’t know how he came to that decision, but I can offer a comparison: If I was ever lucky enough to be drafted to the NHL, it would be a dream come true. But if I was drafted by the Sabres and was the best player in team history? There’s no way I could leave ever that behind.  I don’t know how he made up his mind–and even if I knew his logic, I probably wouldn’t understand it–but he sure broke a lot of hearts when he left.   

  

I asked a college friend of mine who lives in Cleveland what the scene was like and how they were taking it. He said, “Everyone hates LeBron. It’s pretty crazy. I don’t know if there is even anymore LeBron apparel, everyone is burning everything.”         
      
I knew the fallout would be bad in Ohio, and burning expensive things  is my case in point. Another part of the fallout that was publicized was Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert’s furious open letter to LeBron. Anger often provides the best fuel for writing, and although you may regret it later, it frequently proves to yield some really good writing. I thought the letter was a stroke of genius on Gilbert’s part, and I love that he used Comic Sans MS and blue font for it to take down the tone. He also took the focus off the fact that Cleveland just lost their best player, and put it on how much better they will be without him, when they clearly won’t be (and made a few thousand hometown fans in the process). I have the letter saved on my computer should something happen and it be mysteriously deleted from the Internet like some other things during the LeBron saga. My friend said, “The good news is that there is a new king, Dan Gilbert… got to love an owner like that.”       

When you think about it, you do love an owner like that. I wish our owners were more like that. He personally guarantees the Cavs will win a championship before LeBron will. While our absentee and aged owners don’t seem to know games exist after the regular season, their owner personally guarantees them a championship. In all honesty, that’s probably a bet he’s going to lose, but either way, you have to admire the passion he has for his city, something James seemed to be lacking.      

I actually got a letter from James in the mail a week or two ago. In it, he said, “No matter which team I end up playing with next season, I promise to continue to work hard and remain dedicated to the game of basketball… without the support of the fans, basketball would not mean nearly as much.” Guess basketball doesn’t mean as much to him. And if not basketball, then the city of Cleveland.      

Eventually though, The Forest City will do what us small-markets do best, pull together and be resilient. It’s not going to be easy and it will certainly take time, but Cleveland will start to get over it and LeBron will stop being headline news, maybe when the Browns start-up. Art Modell will still be public enemy number one, and eventually, Clevelanders will make their way to the acceptance stage of grief. One of the last things I asked my friend was if they had a feeling LeBron was going to leave. He answered, “I knew he was going to leave. I think everyone knew but didn’t want to admit it.”      

Through writing this I’ve realized that Cleveland is going to be okay. It may take some time to become title contenders again, but when the wounds heal, they heal stronger than before. And Cleveland–if you need a hug along the way, Buffalo is just a short trip away.       

——-
Not really relevent to the piece, but you knew this was a big deal when dictionary.com even got involved. Take a look (note the extension is 666): http://hotword.dictionary.com/?p=666. They know grammar and things of that nature, but I would have liked to see them make note of Gilbert’s use of a double negative “nor NEVER.”
   

Meet Jordan Leopold, the newest member of the Buffalo Sabres

On the first day of free agency, the Buffalo Sabres signed defenseman Jordan Leopold.

Around 5:30 p.m., news came across the wire that the Sabres had inked the 7-year vet to a 3-year deal. The AP reports that “Monetary terms of the deal were not immediately available, but it’s expected that Leopold will get about $3 million a season.” 

Leopold put up 26 points last year (11 goals, 15 assists) in 81 games played, numbers similar to Daniel Paille and Jochen Hecht (both 12g and 15a). Leopold spent the first 61 games with the Florida Panthers, and finished out the last 20 with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being traded during the Olympic break.

He totaled 28 penalty minutes last year and finished with a minus-2 rating, numbers that put him right in the middle of the pack on the Sabres roster. If you look closely, you can chalk his negative rating up to being a good player on a bad team: 75 percent of his season was spent with Florida where he was a minus-7, but in the quarter of his year spent with Pittsburg, he went plus-5.

His ice time per game with Florida was 22:25, which would have led all Buffalo players not named Tyler Myers.

Through 436 career games, the former second round draft pick (Anaheim, 1999) has tallied 45 goals and 95 assists. He also has 54 playoff games under his belt–including a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals with Calgary in 2004–and has appeared in each of the last three post-seasons.

Although he was once labeled as injury prone (missed time for the following ailments, 2006-‘08:  hernia surgery (25 games), groin injury (17), fractured wrist (remainder of season), hip problem and lacerated leg (35 games), pneumonia, and concussion), he played in 164 regular season games over the last two years.

Leopold played four years at the University of Minnesota (missed Vanek by one year), and is a former member of the U.S. National Team Developmental Program.

Defensemen Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder both signed deals with new teams earlier today (the Ducks and Devils, respectively), but Leopold will fill the void. He is not known for his physical play (less than a hit per game last season), but he scored more goals last year than Lydman and Tallinder combined.  He may not be the “power play quarterback” people want Darcy to bring in, but he did see nearly 100 minutes of PP time last year, which would put him fourth among Buffalo defensemen.

Stay tuned for more free agency news and reactions.

Other info:
Age: 29
Birthday: August 3, 1980
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 200 lbs
Birth place: Golden Valley, Minn.
Shoots: Left