Last summer, new Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula gave GM Darcy Regier the OK to spend whatever it took under the salary cap to bolster the roster into a Stanley Cup contender.
Regier drove the Sabres payroll to its highest in team history and fourth in the NHL, with expensive acquisitions in center Ville Leino (six years, $27 million), defensemen Christian Ehrhoff (10 years, $40 million) and Robyn Regehr (two years remaining at more than $4 million per season), plus re-signing right winger Drew Stafford (four years, $16 million) and blueliner Andrej Sekera (four years, $11 million).
Under previous ownership, the Sabres rarely made expensive free agent acquisitions, while their tight-fisted ways at times resulted in losing some of their best players (Daniel Briere, Chris Drury) to free agency, or trading them (Brian Campbell) if they couldn’t be re-signed.
Last summer’s moves, therefore, were seen as a refreshing change by Sabres followers, raising expectations their team was indeed poised to become a Cup contender.
It didn’t work out as hoped, though. The Sabres jumped to a promising 10-5 start, but following a fateful Nov. 12 game against the Boston Bruins (where Bruins left winger Milan Lucic steamrollered Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller), the Sabres fell into an 11-19-5 funk and by late January were all but written off as playoff contenders.
They rallied in February and March, going 17-7-5 and by late March were on the verge of making the post-season, but ultimately fell short, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference with 89 points.
Several veteran Sabres and some of the new additions failed to deliver.
Leino and Regehr had disappointing performances, while Stafford and center Derek Roy posted offensive numbers below expectations. Miller struggled with consistency until late in the season and 2010 Calder-winning defenseman Tyler Myers labored to fulfill his promise.
Injuries were a factor in the Sabres demise. Miller, Myers, Leino, Ehrhoff, Sekera, sophomore center Tyler Ennis and checking forwards Nathan Gerbe and Jochen Hecht were sidelined for lengthy periods.
Nevertheless, fans are bitterly disappointed over the outcome. Following the hype from Pegula’s stated intent to turn the Sabres into a champion and Regier’s spending spree last summer, they expected a better team, one that could adjust to adversity.
The ninth-place finish sparked calls from the local media for Regier and long-time coach Lindy Ruff to be replaced.
Pegula quickly quashed those demands, announcing last week through a spokesman Regier and Ruff would return.
Considering the Sabres have almost $58 million tied up in 18 players next season, Regier could find it difficult to address the problem areas that sunk the Sabres season.
Regier has only two key restricted free agents (center Tyler Ennis and RW Patrick Kaleta) to re-sign, and must find replacements for pending UFA forwards Brad Boyes and Jochen Hecht.
The physical Kaleta (116 PIMs in 63 games) earned slightly more than $900,000 and shouldn’t be an expensive re-sign. Ennis, however, is another matter.
Coming off his entry level contract, the 22-year-old was limited by injuries to only 48 games, but had 34 points and it’s no coincidence the Sabres improved following his late-January return to the lineup. Had Ennis played a full season, he would’ve easily eclipsed his 20-goal, 49-point debut in 2010-11.
Having only made $875,000 last season, Ennis is in line for a significant raise, perhaps tripling his salary.
Given his limited cap space, Regier isn’t expected to be as big a player in this summer’s free agent market, but he could try to shake things up via trade.
Forced to trade away pending UFA center Paul Gaustad to Nashville at the Feb. 27 trade deadline, Regier quickly replaced him by shipping young right winger Zach Kassian to the Vancouver Canucks for rookie center Cody Hodgson.
That move indicated Regier was not only looking to replace Gaustad quickly, but with a player who could be part of the Sabres long-term future plans. It’s a trend he could continue this summer.
Stafford, right winger Thomas Vanek and veteran center Derek Roy carry expensive contracts, but have been mentioned as trade candidates.
Of the trio, Roy is the most likely to go, especially after his critical comments toward Ruff as the players cleaned out their lockers last Monday.
If any of those players are moved, Regier would want more scoring depth and size in return.
Because of the uncertainty generated by upcoming CBA negotiations, it remains to be seen if Regier can find such deals this summer.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.