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Black & Blue & Gold Looks Toward July 1st: Alex’s Take

06/20/11

EDITOR’S NOTE: What started out as a Vulgar Stats post is now a two-part series in which Black & Blue & Gold’s two authors take on the pink elephant in the room that is free agency. First up is Alex.

I’m not sure if this will really be a traditional statistics-based post, but it will have numbers in it which is close enough for me.

Let’s start with what we know along with a few things we can guess at with reasonable accuracy:

  • The players that are already under contract next season.
  • The UFAs and RFAs and what they made last season.
  • What those FAs are likely to make based on the payment of players with similar stats around the league.
  • The cap implications of the above.

(Random aside, I thought jokingly about doing an article on my hockey neophyte girlfriend’s salary guesses regarding the Sabres.  Three million for Paul Gaustad, that’s ridiculous…and yet not very far off.  Sigh.)

I based my cap hit estimations for next season on a pair of five million sided Dungeons and Dragons dice.  Or I looked at players around the league with similar numbers and averaged their cap hits.  One of the two.  Also, the cap ceiling is based on speculation from Capgeek.

The team is sitting pretty well at forward, with second line center (or first line depending on who we target), third line left winger and fourth line right winger as spots to be filled.  I think two of those are all but guaranteed to be re-signed, with the only potential hitch being McCormick getting heady and looking for seven figures per year.  I hope we toss Tim Connolly into the air and shoot him skeet style.  He isn’t as bad as a lot of people make him out to be, but I think it’s time for him and the team to start seeing other people.

Defense is a little trickier with so many free agents and the completely underwhelming Shaone Morrisonn.  I think part of the problem was that the Sabres asked Morrisonn to play a bit above himself on the second pairing.  If a couple players shift him downward, he looks like a much better option.  Unfortunately, none of our current defensemen have proven to be capable of doing that.  Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler have given us half of a good season each, and Marc-Andre Gragnani and Mike Weber are still very raw.

Goaltending is goaltending.  We know that Ryan Miller will play 55+ games barring injury and probably notch 30-40 wins without much trouble.  Patrick Lalime is no longer an NHL goaltender and Jhonas Enroth is more expensive than you typically want for a backup and probably of more overall worth as a piece in a trade.

I also included some of the call-ups on this chart just to account for the fact that their salaries do matter.  While guys like Grier and Niedermayer will likely not return, the salary totals for that group of players as a whole probably won’t change much year to year.  (And truthfully I don’t know much about the rules for call-ups, but I know they do matter so I want to acknowledge them without digging in too deeply.)

The next logical question is: what can we do?  Since the Sabres like to stay the course and build from within, I penciled in the following RFA signings (again based on what similar players around the league make):

  • Nathan Gerbe – $1.55M (+$700,000)
  • Cody McCormick – $.85M (+$350,000)
  • Marc-Andre Gragnani – $.65M (+$150,000)
  • Andrej Sekera – $1.5M (+$500,000)
  • Mike Weber – $1.0M (+$450,000)
  • Jhonas Enroth – $1.0M (+$133,333)

Given that Stafford got about what I expected (my call being $3.5-$4.0M) I think I’m at least in the ballpark, if a little low because I think I tend to undervalue guys like Gragnani and Enroth who haven’t really proven anything with their limited NHL time.  What we get after all that is a little over $7.0M in cap space, or in technical terms, “not enough to sign Brad Richards without buying out at least one of Hecht, Pominville, Gaustad, Boyes, or Morrisonn.”  And that’s assuming we don’t try to improve our defense of “Tyler Myers and a bunch of other guys.”

This is unfortunate because Brad Richards is about the only UFA center that is both good enough and young enough to be worth looking at.  (Arnott’s and Handzus’s respective 31 and 30 points in 10-11 and their $4.5M and $4.0M caps hits are not pretty.)  That leaves a whole bunch of RFAs, the pursuit of which has not been the franchise’s schtick in recent years.  But with the arrival of Terrence Moneybags and a new philosophy within the organization, we’re going to consider the big bad offersheet and what it can do for us.

I think in building a contender you have to either have an unquestioned first line center (a Crosby), or a pair of good 1A/1B centers to balance out your lines.  That means we need the second piece of that equation to go with Derek Roy.  Two of the better centers that are available on a team with good center depth are T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund in St. Louis.  (St. Louis has four listed centers at or projected to 50+ points for a full season in Oshie, Berglund, Steen, and MacDonald, and 30-40 in Sobotka.)  Their 2010-2011 measurables look like this:

  • Oshie – 24 years old – 49gp – 34 points – $1.275M
  • Berglund – 22 years old – 81gp – 52 points – $1.25M

There are a few issues though.  Neither one logs a huge amount of shorthanded ice time (1:53 and 0:29 per game respectively), they’ll both probably cost more than Connolly did, they’re both under 50% faceoff men, and I think at least one of them spent a lot of time on the wing instead of at center.

I think Oshie is the better option with higher point totals, a bit more NHL experience, and more shorthanded time. Plus there is the possibility that the Blues have soured a bit on Oshie after his team suspension for missing a practice (a stretch, but a possibility).  I think landing Oshie would require an offersheet in the $4.5M to $5.5M range depending on how happy he is in St. Louis.  Since offersheets tend to be expensive, I’d be more inclined to believe the latter.

If we want to improve on defense, there are a few UFAs available.  I tend to disregard a lot of the high end players (like Bieksa) as unrealistic due to their cost and importance to their current teams.  I disregarded still more for being unable to fill what I think is our need, a guy that can solidly skate 20+ minutes a night.  One guy that fits my criteria is Jan Hejda from Columbus, a 32 year old, 20 point, 21:07 defenseman that is currently making $2.0M (that logged 111 hits and 133 blocked shots to boot).  Unfortunately I don’t know a whole lot about his play and seem to recall rumors that he’s losing a step, but I would think that he is at least a better option than throwing Gragnani to the wolves for 82 games next season.  With the addition of Oshie, some salary would have to be moved in order to allow for his signing.

We know several things:

  • Management is not opposed to making big moves.
  • But they seem happy with much of the current roster.
  • The Sabres aren’t that far away so big moves may not be necessary anyways.
  • Over payments in Hecht, Gaustad, Pominville, Boyes, and perhaps Enroth (as a backup) hamper what the team can do in free agency.
  • But management has also stated that they’re not opposed to buying players out if necessary.

So let’s talk about the possibility of buying out the players mentioned a few lines up.  Boyes seems to be everyone’s favorite butout target despite the fact that he played well for the Sabres while playing out of position at center.  (Other blogs have covered this in greater detail.)  Losing Gaustad cripples a team that is already bad at faceoffs.  Losing Hecht and Pominville puts a gaping hole in the penalty kill units, especially with Grier’s likely retirement.  Losing Enroth is very palatable.  He’ll make too much (for my liking) as a backup goaltender, and his prime overlaps with Miller’s too much for him to be considered the goaltender of the future.  Plus with his performance last season, I think plenty of teams will be willing to give decent value for him or his rights.  If one of the UFA goalies that has disappointed as a starter (looking at Leclaire, Anderson, and Garon) wants to take a pay cut, we could be sitting pretty nicely in net.  If not, keeping Jhonas around a bit longer isn’t that bad of an option either.

Final Thoughts:

My gut says that the Sabres will make one addition to the starting forwards and one addition to the starting defensemen.  Some have speculated that Brad Richards is a possibility, but it seems to involve either too much tinkering with the current roster or too much gambling on inexperienced defensemen to play well for me to put much stock in it.

If you were to ask me what I would do throwing reality at least partially out the window, it would be this:

  • Buy Out Brad Boyes – still high on Boyes, but I’d rather keep Pominville and Hecht for their PK time – (-$4.0M)
  • Buy Out Paul Gaustad – because winning draws isn’t important if you’re a bottom liner – (-$2.3M)
  • Buy Out Shaone Morrisonn – (-$2.075M)
  • Chris Butler trade – (-~$800,000)
  • Sign Brad Richards – some wacky front loaded deal that doesn’t anger the NHL – (+$8.25M per)
  • Sign Kevin Bieksa – I have no idea if this is realistic, I just split the Paul Martin/Zybnek Michalek deals – (+$4.5M)
  • Promote Jhonas Enroth – A great backup for some cost, but we can always trade him later – (+$133,333)
  • Promote Luke Adam – defensively shaky in the NHL, but will learn well from Hecht – (+$875,000)
  • Promote Marc-Andre Gragnani – (+$750,000)
  • Promote Matt Ellis – you know if nothing else, he’ll hustle – (+$625,000)

That leaves us with the following:

I think that’s a pretty good lineup to take a strong run at the cup.  The problem is we will be kind of screwed once it comes time to pay Ennis and Myers their dues (and Adam, Gragnani, and Weber if they continue to play well).  Whatever happens, I’m excited to see what the Sabres do with trades and free agency because I think it will be key in taking this team where we all want it to go.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gr8daygo permalink
    06/20/11 3:25 PM

    i just dont like richards…. i think it hampers the future core of this team (Ennis, Myers, Weber, etc…)…. are there any better trade options out there?

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  1. Black & Blue & Gold Looks Toward July 1st: Phil’s Take « Black & Blue & Gold

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