General manager Darcy Regier immediately called a news conference in Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday to announce he was matching the US$50-million, seven-year offersheet Vanek signed with the Oilers, keeping the 23-year-old scoring star in western New York.
And the Sabres GM made it clear he didn’t appreciate the Oilers’ attempt to poach a top player, particularly after Buffalo lost co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury and forward Dainus Zubrus to other clubs as unrestricted free agents.
“It was always going to be a match situation, and they were well aware of it (Thursday night) that we were going to match,” Regier said. “I suppose you have to assume they thought we were bluffing.
“What this amounted to was an exercise in futility.”
Unlike unrestricted free agents, who can sign with another team without compensation, the Sabres had a week to either match the offer or take four first-round draft picks as compensation.
Oilers GM Kevin Lowe – all but shut out on the unrestricted free agent market and still smarting from having centre Michael Nylander agree to, then back out of a contract – called the Sabres reaction “rather juvenile.
“I could have behaved that way with Washington (which signed Nylander),” Lowe said on a conference call. “It’s a business.
“Take the personal out of it. It was right for the Oilers and obviously it was right for the Sabres.”
He said he called Regier on Thursday “out of respect,” but did not discuss how much may be offered and had not at that time even decided whether to go ahead with it.
Now, Lowe said he will look at other restricted free agents, although he offered no names. Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils, Dustin Penner of the Anaheim Ducks and Lee Stempniak of the St. Louis Blues may be the most attractive candidates.
“Our intention is to make our team stronger,” Lowe said. “We wanted to do it through unrestricted free agents and that didn’t work out.
“There are other players out there. We’d like to take time and think about what we’ll do. We can’t just fire out offersheets.”
The Oilers’ front office had examined the Sabres’ situation and felt they had a chance to get Vanek, who had 43 goals and 84 points last season and looks like a star of the future.
Also, the Oilers are well stocked with prospects, having had three first-round picks in the draft last month, with an extra first-rounder in 2008 from last year’s Chris Pronger trade to Anaheim.
Vanek was ready to play in either city.
“Two great cities, two great teams – neither would disappoint him,” said Stephen Bartlett, Vanek’s agent. “It wasn’t a case of being unhappy in Buffalo.
“It was just a case of another good team making him an attractive offer.”
This has been a tough off-season for the Sabres. Drury signed a $35.25-million, five-year deal with the New York Rangers, Briere signed a $52-million, eight-year contract with Philadelphia while the New Jersey Devils signed Zubrus to a $20.4-million, six-year deal.
Bartlett said he wasn’t surprised to see Edmonton make such a lucrative pitch for his client.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that under the new CBA, Group-2 (restricted free agents) offers would become part of the landscape,” he said.
In the past, GMs have shied from making offers to restricted free agents, fearing it would escalate salaries and leave their own players open to offers.
Lowe said those days are gone.
“A lot of people have been predicting this,” he said. “I’d have never though we would initiate it, but I expect we’ll see more of it in future.”
It’s the second straight year that a restricted free agent has signed an offersheet. Last season, the Philadelphia Flyers offered Ryan Kessler $1.9 million, but it was matched by the Vancouver Canucks.
“I don’t know what the reaction from other GMS will be, but I’ve had a couple who called and said they understand it and called it a bold move,” Lowe said. “That wasn’t the case in Buffalo, but we’ve got to do what’s best for the Edmonton Oilers.”
Vanek’s deal calls for salaries of $10 million and $8 million in the first two years – including a $5-million signing bonus the first season and a $3-million signing bonus in the second. He would then make $6.4 million in each of the remaining five seasons.
Vanek, a first-round pick in 2003, earned $942,000 last year with Buffalo.
Bartlett said he also talked to “a handful” of other clubs about making offers to Vanek.
The six-foot-two, 208-pound left-winger, in only his second NHL season, was the first Sabres player to reach the 40-goal plateau since Miroslav Satan did it in 1998-99.
Bartlett said the contract could turn out to be a bargain.
“Is he overpaid in the early years? Possibly yes. But will he be in later years? Probably no,” he said.
Bartlett said that general managers’ past reluctance to sign unrestricted players has lessened under the new CBA, which installed a salary cap.
“Now a player can move from team to team, but you don’t drive up the total salary pool,” he said.
But it looks like the player-signing game has become more cut-throat.
“That’s a strong word,” said Lowe. “I try to be respectful of people.
“But having played against some of my best friends, I was never afraid to take runs at them. It’s all about winning and we take great pride in that.
“In Edmonton, our fans fill our building They want to see good hockey and see the team win.”
Vanek, a native of Baden bei Wien, Austria, was selected fifth overall by Buffalo in the 2003 NHL entry draft. In two full seasons with the Sabres, he has registered 68 goals and 64 assists in 163 career games. He has also accumulated eight goals and four assists in 26 career playoff games.