It's been two weeks since the start of the NHL free agency period and the Sabres have made very few moves. Many Sabres fans had hoped the team would make a splash but Darcy Regier and Larry Quinn chose to stand back and watch all the other teams spend their money. The team hasn't been completely quiet, adding two players to the roster while subtracting one. After only a couple of moves in the first two weeks, how much of the off-season agenda is already complete and how much is left to work on?
Five Off-Season Goals
Improve the overall team defense
They acquired a steady stay-at-home defenseman when they sent a couple of draft picks to San Jose in return for veteran defenseman Craig Rivet. Rivet is signed for three more seasons at a price tag of $3.5 per season, a relatively high number but based on the current state of NHL salaries it's pretty reasonable. He will fill two voids for the Sabres franchise by adding a veteran presence and he is a solid positional defenseman.
The Sabres could still be in the market for another defenseman. I said before free agency began that the team needed someone that could quarterback the power play, the problem is that guy is not currently available. The Sabres will have to complete another trade in order to get a solid power play guy.
Alleviate the logjam at Forward
Darcy Regier traded away restricted free agent Steve Bernier in order to acquire two draft picks, one was used to acquire Craig Rivet. Bernier was acquired at last years trade deadline in the deal that sent Brian Campbell to San Jose but he was expendable because of the amount of NHL ready forwards on the Sabres roster. At the time of the trade it seemed a bit odd that Bernier was the guy that was traded but at $2.5 million per season it seems they made the right decision. Not only has Bernier not done anything to warrant that type of contract but the Sabres don't have that much money to spend.
The Sabres still have 14 NHL ready forwards on the roster, including restricted free agents Daniel Paille and Clarke MacArthur. Buffalo will probably re-sign both players but will need to free up some salary to do it. The most likely candidate to be traded is Max Afinogenov but Tim Connolly and Ales Kotalik could be considered as well. All three players will be unrestricted free agents at the end of next season.
Sign a reliable backup for Ryan Miller
Last season Ryan Miller played in 76 games because Lindy Ruff lost confidence in backup Jocelyn Thibault. Thibault was 3-4-2 with a 3.31 Goals against Average in only 12 games for the Sabres last season. It was important for the Sabres to go out and get a guy that was capable of playing anywhere from 15-25 games to help alleviate the pressure on Miller. They accomplished that by signing Patrick Lalime to a two-year contract.
Lalime comes to Buffalo as a veteran backup with a proven track record. He was more than adequate as a backup in Chicago and we all know about his time as a starter in Ottawa. His $1 million per season is probably a little bit more than the Sabres wanted to pay but that was the going rate and they weren't going to go into another season with a guy they weren't confident in.
Re-Sign their Restricted Free Agents
The Sabres had five restricted free agents that they were going to have to address in the off-season. They made a point to re-sign Paul Gaustad before he reached July 1 and another team had an opportunity to sign him to an offer sheet. Gaustad is a proven leader and he also is the best face off guy on the team. His new deal locks him up for four more seasons.
They addressed two issues when they traded away Steve Bernier because they rid themselves of a restricted free agent they would need to sign and they also traded away a forward from the roster. After re-signing Gaustad and trading away Bernier they still have three restricted free agents that need to be signed or traded.
The three guys that remain unsigned are Daniel Paille, Clarke MacArthur and Mark Mancari. Mancari is likely to start the season with the Portland Pirates and will likely be re-signed by the start of training camp. He is a low priority in comparison to MacArthur and especiallly Paille. Paille had a breakout season last year scoring a career high 19 goals. MacArthur is likely to push for a spot on the Sabres opening day roster as well.
Sign Ryan Miller and Jason Pominville to extensions
I probably shouldn't lump these two in together but I feel they are both equally important to the Sabres future. Ryan Miller is obviously the first priority because he will be an unrestricted free agent following next season and the Sabres don't have anyone in the organization that is capable of replacing Miller at this point. It's likely the Sabres will try to sign him for five to six years and will hope that Jhonas Enroth is ready to take over if he develops as expected. Miller took some obvious steps backward last season but you cannot discount his importance to this team. Remember that there are two sides to every story and Miller has to be willing to re-sign in Buffalo. All indications are that both sides are committed to making a deal happen.
The discussions with Ryan Miller have been very public but not much has been said about Jason Pominville. Their isn't nearly as much urgency to get Pominville signed because he will be restricted at the end of next season, allowing the Sabres to match any offer he might get from another team. Don't expect the Sabres to allow him to get to next July 1 however because they don't want to have to overpay him like they did with Thomas Vanek.
The Sabres have started on their off-season checklist but it is far from complete. They still have guys that need to be re-signed, guys that need to be extended, they have a logjam at forward and possibly another hole to fill on the blue line. Plenty of NHL teams have already made their moves but they Sabres may have just begun.