Anyone can look at the Philadelphia Flyers' incredible run to the Stanley Cup finals and rationalize about the Sabres being equally capable of doing the same. The Flyers provided evidence that anything can happen if a team comes together at the right time and has everything fall into place.
The Sabres finished four spots ahead of the Flyers in the conference standings. The Sabres had much better goaltending, which is huge in the postseason. They had more depth than the Flyers did. Buffalo, if it had beaten Boston, also would have had home-ice advantage after Washington and New Jersey were knocked out.
So it easily could have been Buffalo in the finals, right? Well, it's not that simple.
Any playoff team can go deep, but the Flyers had a few things in place that increased their chances. One was a top defenseman in Chris Pronger, whose physical style and competitiveness is built for the postseason. At forward they also had stars in Mike Richards, Daniel Briere and Simon Gagne, highly productive rookies in Ville Leino and Claude Giroux -- he was taken 22nd overall in 2006, two spots before Buffalo took defenseman Dennis Persson -- and Aaron Asham playing a gritty, two-way game.
The Flyers were a good team that underachieved most of the year, switched coaches, came together, gained confidence, fed off their resiliency and never winced until the Blackhawks stopped them. What Philly had in abundance that Buffalo sorely lacked was one of the great assets a team can have in the postseason:
The Sabres won the division for the sixth time in franchise history. By most accounts, it was a successful season. But let's not kid ourselves. They were exposed by a Boston team that had more experience, more bite and more production from its top players than Buffalo did. The Sabres don't need an overhaul, but they do need changes.
This marks the fourth year I'm playing general manager for a day. Staying within the confines of the budget is never easy. The salary cap, which many predicted two years ago would plunge, is expected to increase to more than $58 million. The Sabres spent about $56 million last season, so a self-imposed $57 million cap figure seems reasonable (the actual salaries will be lower).
We're not talking about acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrick Marleau and Sergei Gonchar. They're either making too much money or wouldn't be interested. Let's be realistic. I'm looking for a veteran defenseman, preferably with some toughness, who can help quarterback the power play. I want another center who will play both ends of the rink and, if possible, more scoring along the wing. Is that too much to ask? Not if we make smart, aggressive decisions and find the right trade partners.
I want three players in general. Specifically, I want Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp.
The goal is to get the Sabres back into contention with the idea they have a real chance of winning it all next season or the following year. They weren't as close as some people believed this season, but they're also not that far away going into next year if they do things right this summer.
In order to get what the Sabres need, the first step is ridding them of what they don't need. What the Sabres don't need are players who disappear for long stretches, are only productive enough during the regular season to justify their paychecks and vanish in the postseason. They don't need Philly-style superstars. They need the right players.
The Sabres have $46.243 million already earmarked for 2010-11 contracts, which allows less than $11 million to sign several of their own players and add needed help. It means getting creative with the big picture in mind. Simply, what looks like a bad move one day would lead me to make better moves down the road.
Tim Connolly must come off my payroll one way or another. It's a classic case of addition by subtraction. Trade him for a mid-round draft pick, a no-name prospect or a hockey bag and a case of scotch. Drew Stafford and Andrej Sekera have at least one skate out the door, too, in an effort to cut costs and create options.
Connolly should have been gone at the 2008-09 trade deadline and instead was given a $1 million raise in a two-year extension. Ridiculous. He's a primary example of the Sabres becoming enamored with the wrong players, one they kept in lieu of others with value. He's not in my plans and I don't want him around my collection of young players.
He's going to be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Plus, and this is important, I want to free up $4.5 million to pay for players who can help in other areas this year and beyond. He can take the highlight-reel dipsy doodles, the hot streaks and periods of inconsistency along with his lack of leadership somewhere else.
I want gamers.
If I can get Connolly off my payroll, I can become much more aggressive in trying to address needs and acquire players who can help elsewhere.
Sharp and Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle or Edmonton blueliner Sheldon Souray are at the top of my summer wish list. I'm not expecting all three, but it's possible. I want three players who are similar to these guys and maybe even a fourth.
Derek Roy stays. He was criticized this year and rightfully so. He was brutal in the postseason. He and coach Lindy Ruff had their share of disagreements. But the center has played at least 78 games and averaged more than 28 goals and 73 points over the last three seasons while collecting $10 million. He has three years and $14 million remaining on his contract.
To me, that's value. Connolly over the same stretch has averaged 56 games. The 65 points he had last season were a career high. He has never scored more than 18 goals in a season. He hasn't scored a playoff goal since 2005-06, going 22 straight postseason games without one. He's not taking another $4.5 million from my team.
Anyway, I need to pay Sharp, who can take over at center.
The Blackhawks will need to make moves this summer to get under the salary cap, and their superstars aren't going anywhere. Sharp has two years and $8.3 million remaining on his contract. He plays in every situation, had 25 goals and 66 points this season. He was terrific in the playoffs.
Chicago would rather keep Sharp, but it has five players (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith) taking up more than half of its cap space with several players who need to be signed. It makes Sharp, who makes $4.1 million and will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2011-12 season, a primary candidate for departure.
What would it take to get him? Prospects and draft picks. I'm willing to part with both in an effort to win the Cup in the next two years.
Kaberle could pop free now that his no-trade clause is no longer in effect. Leafs GM Brian Burke is looking for young, edgy players with skill. Clearly, he liked Tim Kennedy, which explains why the South Buffalo forward was selected for the world championships over Connolly, Paul Gaustad and Jason Pominville.
Sorry, but Kennedy isn't going anywhere. The Sabres don't need fewer players like Kennedy. They need more. He's certainly not worth dangling for Kaberle, who has only one year remaining on his contract. Another prospect and a third-round pick? A first-round pick if he signs an extension? Stafford? Sekera and a prospect? Nathan Gerbe?
Now we're talking.
Souray could be had without much work. The Oilers are prepared to take a hit if they can unload his $5.4 million cap figure. He's making $4.5 million in actual salary in each of the next two seasons. He's coming off shoulder surgery, but he's 6-foot-4, 235 pounds and a tough, dependable player when healthy.
Souray or Kaberle in Buffalo -- and I'm shooting for both -- makes for a very good defense corps that would also include Tyler Myers, Craig Rivet, Steve Montador, Mike Weber and Chris Butler. Sekera can be a sweetener in a trade. They still have Marc-Andre Gragnani, who has spent four years in Portland and can't be any worse.
It also would mean no need to re-sign Henrik Tallinder or Toni Lydman, both of whom made more than $3.1 million last season. If one of them wants to come back at the right price, meaning the same salary or less, I'm listening. Otherwise, it's time to move forward. There are other players who can be effective with Myers.
If I can keep one but not the other, the money can be spent elsewhere. Free agency isn't for me, but I'm keeping my options open.
There are free agent options on defense. Paul Martin is unrestricted this summer. He's not going to command the $4.5 million he made last season after playing just 22 games. Pavel Kubina, a right-handed shot, isn't likely to exceed the $5 million he made last season in Atlanta. Joe Corvo, another righty, could be had for considerably less.
The good news is that the Sabres' young players are competitive, talented and cheap. Rookie Tyler Ennis, their best forward in the postseason, makes $875,000. Kennedy is a restricted free agent who made $635,000. Patrick Kaleta is a restricted free agent who made $522,000 last season.
Kennedy and Kaleta could accept one-year deals with mandatory 10 percent raises, but it's a good bet they would be back at the table again next season with more leverage. It's especially a risk with Kennedy, who could put up much better numbers if he becomes a regular winger on the power play. Given what he showed late last season, he should be.
Forget the Buffalo connection with Kennedy and Kaleta, by the way. It means nothing. I like their styles, their effort and their attitude. I really liked them in the playoffs. I want them locked up for three years. Giving them a considerable bump on their deals now -- a three-year deal worth $3.6 million for Kennedy and three years, $3 million for Kaleta, for example -- postpones spending too much in the future.
There are numerous options to fill out my team. Martin St. Louis is one of the bargains out there at $4 million for each of the next two seasons. He's small but durable. He has not missed a game since the lockout and averaged nearly 32 goals and 90 points over that span. He's a gamer. Could he be acquired from a team looking to get younger under new ownership?
Matt Cullen is another veteran free agent who can help offensively, provide some grit and kill penalties. He made $2.8 million last season. Or how about unrestricted free agent Vinny Prospal, who made $1.1 million? He's 35, but he's still effective and could help fill a role here given his ability and experience. He's good for 20-plus goals and 50-plus points.
Looking for another Buffalo guy who could give them some offense off the wing so long as he's playing on the right line? Lee Stempniak is a two-time 27-goal scorer and unrestricted free agent who made $3.5 million last season. Restricted free agent Mark Mancari had 28 goals and 74 points and a plus-16 to lead Portland last season.
Yes, there are options.
The more dead weight that can be trimmed from payroll, the better. Jochen Hecht, for example, is available because dumping him would free up $3.525 million in cap space. His 21 goals last season were less impressive when discounting his knack for scoring from terrible angles.
I wouldn't be desperate to trade Hecht, but I'm listening if he can give me a good return after a 20-goal season. The money exchange would depend on the trade, obviously, but younger and cheaper works for me so long as equal quality is coming back in return. If not, Hecht sticks around. He's a sound player if not an overpaid one.
A backup goaltender also is needed. Ryan Miller proved last year he can handle a heavy load, so there are no worries there. Martin Biron can take $900,000 or leave it. If not, I'll find another backup and hope Miller stays healthy.
Otherwise, most pieces are in place.
Cody McCormick was very effective in his brief playoff stint and would be a good fit for this team. He made $550,000 last season. A one-way deal in the $650,000 range seems well within reason for him. Matt Ellis was a solid player and team guy who gave an honest effort when given the opportunity.
The hard part is saying goodbye to Adam Mair, a consistent and selfless player who gave the Sabres much-needed punch. For years, he brought the right attitude and work ethic that the team lacked last season and was exposed in the playoffs. He wasn't the most talented guy in the dressing room, but he gave the Sabres what they lack now.
He was a gamer.