BUFFALO, N.Y. – Sabres general manager Tim Murray couldn’t get through explaining how popular Buffalo is as a free-agent destination without his cellphone ringing on Tuesday.
Stopping in midsentence after making a flurry of moves in opening the NHL’s signing period, Murray checked his phone, smiled and said: “I should take that call.” He didn’t. But the timing was perfect in emphasizing Murray’s point.
Whatever laughingstock reputation that Sabres established in being the league’s worst team last season certainly didn’t reflect in how popular they were among established free agents.
“It just shows you that there are quality players that want to come here,” Murray said. “I’ve thought that all along, but you’re never sure until the clock hits 12. And there were more (interested) than what we got done.”
Overseeing his first free-agency frenzy since taking over in January, Murray added depth and experience to a young, patchwork roster that contributed to one of the Sabres’ worst seasons in franchise history.
Buffalo (21-51-10) set a franchise record for losses and established a post-NHL-expansion-era low by scoring just 150 goals.
In a matter of four hours, Murray changed the team’s outlook by committing a combined $46.375 million in salaries to fill various leadership and offensive needs by signing four free agents, including former Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta. He also acquired veteran defenceman Josh Gorges, who adjusted his no-trade clause to add Buffalo, in a deal with Montreal.
And he also re-signed forward Marcus Foligno, a restricted free agent, to a two-year $3.75 million contract.
“This changes the mindset is what it changes,” Murray said. “I still don’t consider us a contending team by any means. But now the players may think differently. And that’s good.”
Though forward Matt Moulson, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract, was the Sabres’ priciest addition, Gionta was the centerpiece.
At 35, Gionta is a consistent two-way forward and respected leader, whose presence is expected to resonate on a young and developing team. From nearby Rochester, Gionta signed a three-year, $12.75 million deal.
Murray is already envisioning the impact Gionta can make among players, including centre Sam Reinhart, who was selected with the No. 2 pick in the draft last weekend.
“Yesterday, he was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a storied franchise, a playoff team. That wasn’t a token title. That was real,” Murray said of Gionta. “There’s something obviously intangible that you can’t measure with a yard stick, with analytics, with anything like that, and he has it in spades.”
Gorges, a nine-year NHL veteran, also has leadership potential and is regarded as someone capable of grooming Buffalo’s young crop of blue-liners.
“He’s heart and soul,” said Murray, who gave up a 2016 second-round pick to acquire Gorges. “He blocks shots. He’s the type of player that can wear a letter. He’s definitely part of the leadership group.”
Moulson, a seven-year NHL veteran and a three-time 30-goal scorer, rejoins the Sabres after a brief four-month stint in Buffalo last season. Acquired by the Sabres in a trade that sent Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders in October, Moulson was then dealt to the Minnesota Wild at the trade deadline in March.
Moulson was expendable in Buffalo because he was in the final year of his contract. And yet he enjoyed his brief time with the team to come back.
The Sabres also signed defenceman Andrej Meszaros to a one-year, $4.125 million contract, and gritty forward Cody McCormick to a three-year, $4.5 million deal. McCormick is a former Sabres player, who was traded in the deal with Moulson to Minnesota.
As for Meszaros, he’s a nine-year NHL veteran who has had difficulty finding his niche after splitting the past six seasons between three teams, including the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins last year.
Murray, who previously worked for the Senators, is familiar with Meszaros from when the defenceman was in Ottawa. Murray believes the former first-round draft pick can regain the steady form he had in Ottawa, when he combined for 26 goals and 110 points in 246 games.
The additions gave Murray reason to be hopeful regarding the team’s future.
“We can say it’s a team on the rise. People have to see that, Murray said, including the Sabres youngsters. “I think our kids are sitting at home, going, ‘Wow!'”