When GM Darcy Regier does foray into free agency, he does so after some careful research. Only two players on Buffalo’s post-season roster where lured as unrestricted free agents, Teppo Numminen in August 2005 and Jaroslav Spacek in July 2006.
While bigger names were being thrown big money coming out of the NHL lockout, the Sabres quietly signed Numminen to a US$2-million, one-year contract.
“We’re not a big free-agent team but once in a while you try to get guys that can fit really well,” Regier said Friday. “We haven’t gone out for splashy signings. We try and focus on whether they will fit into our team.”
On the surface, the veteran Finn – who re-signed another one-year deal last summer – didn’t exactly look like a great fit on the young and gun Sabres. But he was just want the Sabres wanted, a puck-moving blue-liner oozing with experience.
“The type of player he is and the way the game changed after the lockout, our pro scouts thought that he would be a very good fit for us,” said Regier. “We were looking for a veteran presence, to stabilize and teach young players and lead by example. He has the game down to a science. He’s so effective and efficient.”
A puck-moving defenceman has become more than ever a premium in the new NHL. Numminen doesn’t stand out on television and he’ll rarely make the highlight reel, but watch the face of his teammates light up when bringing up his name.
“The one thing that I think hockey fans probably don’t notice is his ability to get us out of our zone,” star goalie Ryan Miller said Friday after the pre-game skate. “He makes smart passes. When he’s under pressure he knows where his outlets are. He’s one of the smartest defencemen I’ve seen at using his leverage and using his smarts to battle for pucks.
“And it’s the five-foot passes that he makes that are sometimes the best ones all night.”
The crackdown on obstruction and hooking has allowed opposing forwards to forecheck unabashed, putting more stress than ever on retrieving defencemen to make the right decision – quick. That’s Numminen’s forte.
“There’s always something to be said to having a veteran, savvy defenceman that can make any type of real stressful play look easy,” said head coach Lindy Ruff. “And I think that’s what he does. Under pressure, he’s the guy that hangs unto it and will find the open man.”
Sabres defenceman Tony Lydman says there is no better example on how to play the position.
“He has the eye for the game, so to speak,” said Lydman, a fellow Finn. “He may not be the fastest guy but he’s always in the right position, he’s usually right where he should be.”
Numminen, meanwhile, could very well become this year’s Ray Bourque or Glen Wesley, the player everyone cheers for to finally win a Stanley Cup. The 18-year NHL veteran not only has never won a ring, but last year for the first time finally won a playoff series after years of playoff futility in Winnipeg and Phoenix.
“For sure this is one of the best teams I’ve played with,” said Numminen, who played one year in Dallas in 2003-04 after 15 with the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise. “I’m really proud of this team and proud how things have turned out here the last two years. It’s been a real fun time.”
The 38-year-old native of Tampere isn’t slowing down, either. His $2.6-million, one-year deal expires July 1 but he’s not thinking retirement.
“A young, exciting team like this keeps the old man excited and energized,” said Numminen. “So I still enjoy playing and I think I can still play a couple more years.”
Regier has no doubt.
“I think he can, as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing in my view that would prevent him to keep on rolling,” said Regier. “He’s been a very good player for us again this year.”
The Sabres will check in with his agent, veteran Don Baizley, after the season.
“I’d like to (sign him), but that’s something we’ll have to wait and see,” said Regier. “When players become unrestricted they have a lot of say in what they want to do and where the want to go. Time will tell.”