BUFFALO, N.Y. – General manager Tim Murray decided defenceman Christian Ehrhoff and his hefty contract did not fit in his long-term vision for rebuilding the Buffalo Sabres.
Former Sabres captain Steve Ott, on the other hand, just might.
Fresh off clearing Buffalo’s books of the remaining seven years of Ehrhoff’s contract, Murray is targeting veteran role players to augment his team’s young roster once the NHL’s free-agency period opens Tuesday.
“I’d like to acquire a couple of veteran guys who can play the game, but can also show our kids how to be pros,” Murray said Monday. “So I’m going to focus on at least two of those guys.”
And that makes Ott a candidate to return to Buffalo after he was part the Sabres’ trade that also sent goalie Ryan Miller to St. Louis in February.
Murray said Ott is on the team’s list of free-agent candidates, and added he’s had preliminary discussions with the player’s agent.
Ott was expendable at the time of the trade because he was in the final year of his contract.
Murray, who spoke highly of Ott’s leadership ability before the trade, was careful to make sure Ott left on good terms by dealing him to a contender.
As for Ehrhoff, who signed a 10-year, $40 million contract three years ago, Murray said the defenceman wasn’t interested in being part of the team’s rebuilding process. The way Ehrhoff’s contract was structured was another factor. Under NHL rules, the Sabres would have faced a significant salary-cap penalty if Ehrhoff retired before the final year of his deal.
“This seemed to be the best course of action for us to move on, be out from under that contract,” Murray said. “And now we don’t have to worry about it. Now we just have to focus on rebuilding, bringing in good young players and get going here.”
Murray, who took over in January after Darcy Regier was fired, is taking a patient approach to rebuilding a team that is coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Buffalo (21-51-10) finished last in the NHL standings, set a franchise record for losses and established a post-NHL-expansion-era low by scoring just 150 goals.
Murray has set his sights on rebuilding through youth, a process that continued at the NHL draft last weekend. The Sabres made nine picks, starting with playmaking centre Sam Reinhart at No. 2 overall.
Buffalo is scheduled to have three first-round picks in next year’s draft, which leaves Murray preaching patience.
“We all want to speed things up. As soon as we got (Reinhart), I said ‘I wish it was 2016.’ But it’s not. And you have to do it properly,” Murray said. “It’s not easy. It’s hard. It takes a long time. And I think that we’re on the right track.”
Aside from convincing free agents to buy into his rebuilding plan, Murray’s other challenge is upping the Sabres’ payroll to the NHL salary cap minimum of $51 million. The Sabres are currently at about $30 million after buying out Ehrhoff and the final three years of underperforming forward Ville Leino’s contract two weeks ago.
Murray is confident the Sabres will reach the cap minimum before the start of the season, and can do so without handcuffing the team’s salary structure with expensive long-term contracts.
“I’m not worried about the floor,” Murray said, and then broke into a smile while pointing to a reporter. “I’ll sign you if I have to.”
The Sabres have extended qualifying offers to retain the rights of a number of restricted free agents, including centres Tyler Ennis and Luke Adam, forward Marcus Foligno, defenceman Chad Ruhwedel and goalie Matt Hackett.
Defenceman Jamie McBain will become an unrestricted free agent after the Sabres did not extend him and offer.