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.

All the marbles

Leaving everything you have on the ice is tiring. Sidney Crosby (left) and Jordan Staal (right) both earned the right to take a little nap with the Stanley Cup. We're going to find out who wants it that bad tonight.

There is a hockey game tonight, and it just may be the finest athletic event you will see on television all year long. Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals is as good as it gets in sports.

I can’t guarantee there will be a dramatic finish and there almost certainly won’t be a buzzer-beater to win it. Expect a low-scoring game. Tonight there is going to be back checking and shot blocking like you have never seen before. Defense is at a premium and it is universally understood among the players that tonight will require absolutely whatever it takes. Block a shot with your face if you have to. They can give you fake teeth; you can’t fake a Stanley Cup.

Every player on the ice, whether they were born in 1968 (Mark Recchi) or 1992 (Tyler Seguin), has dreamed about playing in this game their entire lives. Sixty minutes stand between each player and a Stanley Cup, 3,600 seconds the difference between immortality and insignificance.

Give only 99 percent for just one of those seconds and you’ll be watching the other team kiss the cup.

If you had offered Claude Julien or Alain Vigneault one game to win it all at the start of the playoffs, they’d take it in a second. Boston wishes it still had Nathan Horton and Vancouver wishes it still had Dan Hamhuis, Aaron Rome and Mason Raymond, but injuries are a part of the game and sometimes it’s the last team left standing that takes home the cup.

Everyone wants the glory. Everyone wants to say they scored the goal that won the Stanley Cup. It’s not enough just to want it. I’ve written about this before — the players are going to have to find some other level inside that they just haven’t been able to get to yet if they want to win this game.

Tim Thomas is one of the only players in this series who has consistently been able to reach that level. I’m not ready to move him up the depth chart on Team USA (ahead of Ryan Miller), but Thomas has been phenomenal. Last season I argued Antti Niemi for the Conn Smythe Trophy and I’m giving my vote to a goalie once again.

Win or lose, I’d give it to Thomas regardless. Last year I wanted it for Niemi, knowing he wouldn’t get it. They were going to give it to a scorer. This season, there are no run-away scorers like Patrick Sharp last season.

David Krejci has been very good for Boston, leading the NHL in points and game-winning goals this postseason, but while Vancouver needs to watch out for him, I don’t feel he strikes fear into the other team every time he touches the puck like Danny Briere did in the Buffalo-Philadelphia series. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been productive as well, and Michael Ryder has snuck into the top-10 in playoff scoring this series.

I’d have a hard time giving the Conn Smythe to anyone on Vancouver barring an epic Game Seven performance. Roberto Luongo has been way too inconsistent. Henrik Sedin is one point off the scoring lead but has only one point in the finals, three goals in the entire postseason and is a minus-7 this postseason, one of the worst rankings in the entire league. Daniel is close behind with 20 points and has scored or assisted on half of Vancouver’s goals this series, but that doesn’t mean as much when you’ve only managed eight goals through six games. Plus, he is a minus-5. The Canucks’ power play has been pitiful this series and that blame has to fall on the Sedins.

I think Alexandre Burrows has been Vancouver’s best player, but there’s no way the NHL is giving chompers an award any time soon. Ryan Kesler has 19 points and a positive plus/minus, but 47 penalty minutes hurt a team too much to be an MVP.

Scott Neidermayer -- now there's a playoff beard

It’s a stretch for a goalie to win the award, and even more so to think a defenseman would win it. I’m very impressed with Kevin Bieksa this series (lack of chin hair and all), Zdeno Chara leads the league at plus-14 and Dennis Seidenberg has played tight defense, but for a blue liner be named playoff MVP, they’d have to be really lighting the lamp on a regular basis. Defensive Conn Smythe winners are an elite class (with the likes of Bobby Orr, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, Scott Stevens, Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Neidermayer), and I’m not sure any of these three are worthy of entry.

I’m very excited to watch tonight’s game, not only as a hockey fan, but as a fan of sport in general. Players are going to go harder than you have ever seen them go and give more of themselves than you have ever seen athletes give. If you’ve been watching the NBA finals, seeing effort like this might be enough to make you come back next season while the other leagues are locked out.

A prediction? I think Luongo bounces back and I know better than to pick a road team in this series. It will be a close, low-scoring game, 1-0 or 2-1. Who other than Burrows puts the dagger in Boston?