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.
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Conacher update: Five points in last two games

Less than 24 hours after scoring his first professional goal Saturday night with the Rochester Americans, Cory Conacher was sent to Cincinnati of the ECHL, where his four-point night led the Cyclones to a 4-3 victory over the Toledo Walleye.

Conacher got on the scoresheet early and often Sunday afternoon, opening the scoring midway through the first period and closing it on the game-winner with three and a half minutes left in the third period. Conacher had a point on every Cincinnati goal as he also set up both Barret Ehgoetz scores in the second period.

Former Griffs Cory Conacher (R) and Vinny Scarsella (L) look to lead their new ECHL teams through the playoffs.

The Canisius senior was on the ice for six of the game’s seven goals and finished the night plus-1. Conacher registered a game-high seven shots on net and was named First Star.

It was a big win for the Cyclones, who came into the day just two points ahead of Toledo in the ECHL Eastern Conference standings. The top eight teams in the East qualify for playoffs. Heading into the last week of the regular season, six teams have already clinched a playoff spot, while Conacher’s Cyclones and fellow Canisius senior Vinny Scarsella’s Elmira Jackals currently hold the two remaining spaces.

Scarsella has one assist in six games with the Jackals and is plus-2 with 11 shots on goal and no penalty minutes.

Saturday night with Rochester, Conacher scored his first pro goal six minutes and 19 seconds into his second game. His top-shelf finish was his only shot on net and he finished plus-1. He was assessed a delay of game penalty at the end of the second period and Syracuse scored on the ensuing power play.

After his first professional game on Friday, Conacher said the plan for him was to have a short stay with Rochester to get used to the speed of the game before going out to Cincinnati. The ECHL is a step below the AHL, but both teams are affiliated with NHL clubs.

Conacher was excited to reunite with Carl Hudson, a Canisius alum who signed with Rochester last season and is now with Cincinnati; however, Hudson did not dress for the game.

Conacher, who was given number 41 in Rochester, will wear 32 for the Cyclones. He wore 19 at Canisius. Oddly enough, Scarsella, who wore 23 in college, is now number 19 for Elmira.

Cory Conacher makes pro debut with Rochester Americans

Cory Conacher was glad to lose his NCAA-mandated full cage in favor of the half-shield he can wear in the AHL, although his parents made sure he bought a mouth guard to protect his teeth.

ROCHESTER — Canisius College’s all-time leading scorer, Cory Conacher, played his first professional game last night for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League.

The Canisius senior played roughly three and a half minutes on five shifts at left wing. Amerks head coach Chuck Weber said he wanted to get Conacher more ice time, but it just didn’t work out with the game being so close and the amount of penalties in the game.

“I thought he did some nice things,” Weber said. “Unfortunately, with the game being as close as it was, he didn’t play as much late. A number of times I called his number in the second and early in the third, and we ended up getting either a D-zone faceoff or special teams happened and he probably lost out on about five shifts that he was called for.”

After signing an Amateur Tryout Contract with the club on Thursday, Conacher got in two practices with the team on Thursday and Friday before dressing for last night’s game.

“I was excited earlier on, but as it got closer [to game time], I started to get a little nervous,” Conacher said. “But after I got that first shift underneath the belt, I got a little more comfortable and for the rest of the game I was having fun… overall it was a good first pro game for me.”

Conacher finished the night with a minus-1 rating and was officially credited with one shot on net, although he appeared to have three. His first shot was a backhand in the first period that seemed to catch Lake Erie goalie Jason Bacashihua off guard, but he was able to knock it into the corner.

In the second period, Conacher hopped off the bench and ripped a one-time snap shot from the top of the circle that Bacashihua was just able to get a piece of with his right arm. Later on the shift, Conacher collected a long rebound and took a wrist shot that Bacashihua saw all the way.

Weber acknowledged the shot count may have been a little low, which credited the Amerks with only 13 shots in regulation.

The goal against that Conacher was on the ice for was Lake Erie’s first goal of the night, 12:27 into the first period. He had just hopped off the bench and made his way into the defensive zone when the rebound was put into the back of the net. “You can’t blame him coming off the bench in that situation,” Weber said.

Conacher became the second Griff to make an appearance with the Americans, the farm team for the NHL’s Florida Panthers, after Carl Hudson played 12 games with the team last season. Conacher said he had been in touch with Hudson about what to expect at the next level.

“You don’t have as much time as you think,” Conacher said, citing the biggest difference between the AHL and Canisius’ Atlantic Hockey Association. “You have to be able to make a play before you even get the puck. It’s a lot faster. Guys are obviously smarter and they know where to be and they’re in the right positions, so you got to make some good moves and you got to think fast in order to get the puck out of your zone.”

As part of his tryout-based contact, Conacher expects to stay the weekend with Rochester before heading off the play with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League, one step below the AHL. There he will reunite with Hudson and will stay with the club throughout its playoff run. Weber said Conacher will play for the Americans tonight when the team takes on the Syracuse Crunch.

Under his deal, Conacher said his expenses are being paid for by Rochester, “but that’s about it.” That may change when he goes to Cincinnati; the ECHL’s website lists minimum rookie salary at $370 per week.

Conacher, a senior in his final semester at Canisius, said he “definitely” plans on finishing his degree. He is working closely with his professors and Canisius’ academic advisor for athletics, Lynsey Miller, to try to plan something out where he can finish the last few weeks of his classes online. Driving back to Buffalo once or twice a week to get work done or attend class is not out of the question either.

The ending to the game — a 3-2 overtime loss — may not be the one Conacher wanted for his first pro game, but it was still a night he will never forget.

“The support from my friends and family is awesome. That first shift was very special to me, and I’m sure [it was] to my family and friends. That was the biggest moment of my hockey career thus far,” he said. “This is my dream to play at a level like this… it’s going to be an experience that I forever remember.”

Former Canisius College athletes ink professional deals

On any given weekend throughout the year, you’re bound to find college students across the country huddled together around the television, watching whatever sports game they can find. But here at Canisius, we never really planned on tuning into a game and hearing the broadcaster call a classmate’s name. 

Until now, that is. 

While most of us were off enjoying our summers (or working it away…), several former Golden Griffin athletes were busy signing contracts to play professionally. High profile athletes in their own right during their time at Canisius, Carl Hudson, Frank Turner and Steve McQuail, among several others, are making names for themselves in the pros. 

Hudson crunches Syracuse's Maksim Mayorov. The Panthers like his physical play.

Hudson, a senior defenseman for the hockey team last year, is playing for the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League. He began playing for the Amerks last spring following the conclusion of Canisius’ season. According to amerks.com, Hudson signed an amateur tryout contract with the Rochester Americans on March 26, 2010. He played seven games with Rochester at the end of the regular season and five more in the playoffs, picking up one assist and tallying 28 penalty minutes along the way. 

Rochester liked what they saw in Hudson, especially the physical aspect he brought to the team. Once the free agency period started this offseason, the Florida Panthers of the NHL signed the former Griff to a one-year, entry-level contract, which most likely keeps him with their minor league affiliate Rochester for another year. CapGeek.com reports the deal to be valued at up to $525,000. Hudson will be a restricted free agent when the contract expires. 

“Last season I had the fortunate opportunity of playing pro hockey in Rochester, which was a great experience,” said Hudson.  “I believe that having played a few games last year will really help me with the upcoming season since I know what to expect.” 

Hudson is the first Canisius player to sign with an NHL team.  “Canisius has really help[ed] me to mature both as a person and a hockey player, and for that I must thank everyone who I have been involved with over my four years at Canisius,” Hudson said. He hopes his signing will help attract recruits to the school. 

A four-year member of the Canisius men’s basketball team, Frank Turner is now playing professionally in Europe. On July 30, EiffelTowers Den Bosch announced they had signed the guard to a one-year deal. The club is a member of the Holland-Eredivisie, the top basketball league in the Netherlands. 

Turner drives to the hoop on an occasion when he seen without the iconic upside-down headband.

Turner is currently in his second week of preseason with the team, and says things are going well. “It took me a day to get adjusted with the difference between American and European players,” Turner said. “European players are more skilled and Americans depend more on their athleticism, so that was a big difference. 

“Another difference is practicing two times a day! The first week it had me a little exhausted but I am now adjusted and doing well.” 

Turner credits his time at Canisius with helping him make the transition smoothly. 

“Playing at Canisius helped me tremendously! Coach Parrotta and his staff prepared me very well with certain techniques and ideas of the game. My current coach here in Holland has the same philosophy offensively and defensively as the coaching staff at Canisius.” 

Turner added that this bodes well for the current Griffs, who are left in good hands. “Not only are the players prepared to dominate on both sides of the ball every night at Canisius, they are also being taught the professional game.” 

Turner was a two-time all-league selection and is the all-time games played leader in Canisius history. He also ranks fourth all-time in points and third in steals.  

McQuail makes running down a fly ball look easy with this catch near the wall

The baseball team had good news this offseason as well, when Steve McQuail was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the Major League Baseball Draft. A 30th round selection, McQuail is currently playing for the Auburn Doubledays, a Class A Short-Season affiliate of the Blue Jays who play in the New York-Penn League. 

Last year as a junior, McQuail led all Griffs with a .398 batting average and 20 home runs, and set a MAAC record with 81 RBIs. 

This year, the outfielder is currently hitting .252 with the Doubledays and has hit four homers through 38 games played. 

Several notable major leaguers began their careers in Auburn, such as Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, Billy Wagner, Luis Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton, Julio Lugo, and Morgan Ensberg; as well as current Blue Jays like Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, and John Buck, who was named to the American League All-Star team this year.  

Other members of last year’s hockey team continue to play after Canisius. Dave Cianfrini, Jason Weeks, Josh Heidinger and Andrew Loewen are all reported to be playing in mid-level professional leagues across the country, while Dave Kostuch (who holds dual citizenship with Canada and Poland) is giving up his final two years at Canisius to play for MKS Cracovia Krakow of the Polish Elite League. 


Links: 

-Amerks’ bio of Carl Hudson
-EiffelTowers press release on Turner, translated from Dutch.
-Auburn Doubledays’ bio of Stephen McQuail

This article is the original write-up of a similar story that appeared in The Griffin, August 27, 2010