No one is sure when the Buffalo Sabres will return to the ice. When they do, Tyler Ennis will be there.
The Sabres and their premier restricted free agent agreed to a two-year, $5.625 million contract Saturday, the same day the NHL shut down because of a labor dispute. Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier wanted to get the deal done prior to the midnight expiration of the collective bargaining agreement because teams can no longer talk to their players until a CBA is reached.
"I think the biggest significance for us prior to [the lockout] was that it allows once we know we're going to get started to get started with the full group," Regier said, "and not have to concern ourselves with, in any kind of hurrying fashion, try and get a deal done with Tyler Ennis. It allows us to focus on the preparation of the game versus any contractual issues."
Ennis joined a rush of players who signed contracts or extensions in the last week, but neither he nor his agent looked at the CBA expiration as a negotiating deadline.
"Maybe I should have been thinking about it a little more, but I wasn't ever really concerned or thinking about it that much," Ennis said by phone. "I didn't really know there was a deadline. I'm just happy it got done, and I think both parties are happy."
Said his agent, Eustace King: "I don't think his deal, whether it was done before or after the CBA, would make a difference. I think the most important thing was to sign a deal you think fits based on what you've been able to accomplish so far in your career."
Ennis, who turns 23 years old next month, earned a deal worth $2.5625 million this season and $3.0625 million in 2013-14. Other restricted free agents signed long-term contracts, but Ennis' options were narrowed because of an ankle injury that limited him to 48 games last year.
"With a longer season and being able to have a bit more of a projected outlook of what he was able to accomplish, we'd probably see a structure that was different," King said by phone. "The contract fits him, and as we see him play over the next two years we'll be able to determine where he fits in more."
When hockey restarts, Ennis is expected to be the Sabres' first- or second-line center. The erstwhile left winger didn't move to the position until late last season, and he responded with 11 goals and 27 points in 26 games in the middle. He totaled 15 goals and 34 points after putting up 20 goals and 49 points during an 82-game rookie season.
"In my meetings and stuff at the end of the year, I kind of just asked that I'd want a bigger role and would like to be looked upon as one of the go-to guys and play all situations," Ennis said. "I think I'm ready to elevate my game to the next level."
Regier, who made Ennis the second of Buffalo's two first-round draft picks in 2008, also sees a bright future.
"He has some special attributes," Regier said. "The talent side is obvious, but I think the other things like he loves to play, when you combine his passion and his fearlessness it's a pretty good combination."
Now that the deal with Buffalo is done, Ennis will have to negotiate another contract elsewhere if he wants to play during the NHL lockout.
"I'm going to have to talk to my agent," Ennis said. "We've mostly just been talking about the contract and haven't really been discussing that side of things. I think in the next couple days we'll have to figure out what I'm going to do here.
"I'm excited to be here for two more, and hopefully I can play well and earn a longer term and stay in Buffalo."