This past Sabres season was as fun as it’s been to be a fan in the last five years, but let’s be honest with ourselves that it was fun, but nothing is more fun than winning and it would certainly be a lot of fun if the Sabres were still playing. The series against the Flyers taught us several things about this team both good bad. There is some really good young talent on this team in Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers and company. However there are some concerns with the group as well. There is no depth along the center position and most notably a top flight center. There is no true complement to Tyler Myers in developing a shutdown pair. The new regime in charge of the Sabres make you feel like this is the offseason to get things done. Ownership seems committed and if they truly are committed the Sabres seem in prime position to make some things happen. Here’s how I would play out the Sabres offseason.
1. Let Andrej Sekera walk. This one is going to be the first decision that would make fans cry bloody murder, but Sekera had a very good season for the Sabres and is a RFA. He’s an offensive defensemen and played in 76 games for the team and registed 3 goals and 26 assists. He is likely to get to go to arbitration or they should hope that he gets an offer sheet from another team. If anything happens with Sekera the Sabres will need to decide what direction they want to go. This move has typical Darcy Reiger written all over it by bringing him back and paying him more than his $1.1m this year. I make this move because Marc-Andre Gragnani can be everything that Sekera is and hopefully more. The team still has Jordan Leopold and a deep farm system (See Mark Pysyk and Brayden McNabb) on the blue line. I think Sekera is a fine player, but the Sabres need more grit along the blue line and can use his salary to attract someone amongst the free agency pool.
2. Sign Drew Stafford, but certainly do not overpay him. There is no way to justify paying Stafford even close to Thomas Vanek’s contract. Vanek’s contracted was inflated because of the RFA offer that the Oilers forced and the Sabres needed to keep a player they felt could be part of their core. Stafford is coming off a 31 goal season in which he only played 62 games. He deserves a pay raise and the Sabres need to keep as many top six forwards on this roster as possible. I would think the team would try to do something around a 4 year/$20m deal to keep him. I’m not convinced I’d even go that far for someone who had a career high 52 points in 2010-11, but the team is likely to try and keep a lot of their young parts and Stafford is one I would try to keep. I would like them to get a deal more like what Justin Williams received from the Los Angeles Kings (4 years/$14.6m).
3. Sign a top rated defensemen. If and when they let Sekera walk the team needs to add to their blue line and most people will agree to that. Most fans in Buffalo have become interested in Christian Ehrhoff or Kevin Bieska from the Vancouver Canucks and both are under 30 meaning the Sabres would likely need to send a good contract their way in terms of dollars and years. Both players made between $3-$4m this past season and will both want a raise moving forward. The talent pool in free agency really seems to lie along the defense and the Sabres are going to need to make sure they are players in this market if they let Sekera, Steve Montador and potentially Shaone Morrisonn go. All of which I would.
4. Do what It takes to get a top flight center. I’m not convinced that the Sabres will be able to land a top center this offseason, but this need will carry into the beginning of next season. The Sabres have a lot of moving parts to make this happen. They will be part of the Brad Richards sweepstakes this offseason, but so will many other teams and that will likely drive up the price. The Sabres may be better served relying on their rich farm system and middle level NHLers to make a deal. No one within the organization seems to be untouchable at the moment outside of maybe Myers and whether the team pursues a Daniel Briere or Jordan Staal (although unlikely) or whoever the team has several highly rated prospects as well as good NHL players to send in return. This roster doesn’t need complete overhaul, but bringing in more elite talent is going to be crucial and it starts in the middle.
5. Bring Mike Grier into the front office in some capacity. He has come out and stated the he’ll either come back to the Sabres or be done. I’m not completely adverse to the idea of him being on the team for one more season, but his body did go on him slightly and I’d rather him have some other role within the organization. One thing I feel about the “Pegula Era” is that they truly will adopt a family tone within the organization. That being said I think this is a great place to start and have him within the front office and potentially working his way towards being a general manager.
6. Start the hate mail, but if possible I would strongly consider re-signing Tim Connolly but for a much lower salary. That being said, is that something he is willing to do? A true #1 center is the primary goal this offseason in my opinion and the return of Derek Roy would have to bump Connolly down to a third line center, but that is where he could flourish. He was the team’s top penalty killer and on the first power play unit. The guy has some value. That being said, would he return for a lesser salary and lesser role? I doubt it and it may be the best for HIM. However, if the Sabres could bring him back for a lower price I would do it. All that being said, the free agency market for centers is very poor and the market value will be driven up by demand. Anything over the $2m/year mark would nullify this entire opinion.
As a lot of people point out (Joe @ BuffaloWins) July 1st is when this new management team will earn its keep among fans. For the last several years the fans have heard that things were going to change and the Sabres wouldn’t stand still only to watch Lydman and Tallinder be replaced with Leopold and Morrisonn. Terry Pegula comes across as genuine as you can through a television and I truly believe that the motto within the organization is a win at all costs mentality so now they just need to prove they are capable of making the right decisions to get there. I, for one am very eager to see the path they chose to get there.