General manager used to be a job title. Now it’s big business. ¶ The most alluring part of video games for many people is “Be a GM” mode. The ability to build the ultimate team or trade for fan favorites trumps the actual game play. “Armchair GM” at CapGeek.com is so popular that the hockey-salary website sells T-shirts illustrating the feature. ¶ The Buffalo News began its “GM for a Day” series in 2007 with the Sabres at a critical juncture. Buffalo just finished back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference finals, but co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were set to become free agents. Bucky Gleason was challenged to come up with a way to keep both. He found a hypothetical solution, unlike the Sabres. ¶ Each spring thereafter, Gleason stepped into the GM chair for a day. At first it was because it was fun. Not long after, it was because it was clear that anyone other than Darcy Regier should be in the Sabres’ front office.
Owner Terry Pegula finally agreed, and for the first time since 1996 the Sabres will spend the summer without Regier as GM. Tim Murray is in charge, and the straight-shooting decision maker doesn’t appear to need help.
Nonetheless, he’ll get some assistance. Coincidentally, The News’ GM will change, too. Gleason has expanded from hockey columnist to general columnist, leaving “Inside the NHL” and “GM for a Day” to this guy.
The challenges for Gleason’s inaugural foray and my debut couldn’t be more different. He needed to pinch pennies to keep a Stanley Cup contender together. I have to spend wildly to help rebuild the worst team in the NHL.
The good news is no one in Sabreland expects immediate results. Next season will probably be worse than this debacle. How can it get worse than 30th place, you ask? At least this season had the distractions of Pat LaFontaine coming and going, Ted Nolan returning, Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek getting traded and Murray taking over for Regier. Next season will have bad hockey and … bad hockey.
The light at the end of the tunnel, of course, is Connor McDavid. The NHL’s next franchise player leads the 2015 draft list. The GM’s job, then, is to keep Buffalo in the draft lottery but have pieces in place for respectability in the 2015-16 season. With that in mind, let’s go.
A bold draft deal
The draft, to be held Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia, heads the to-do list. Buffalo selects second overall, and the pick should be Sam Reinhart. While there’s concern the mild-mannered center is too similar to the other low talkers and polite players in the Sabres’ dressing room, he has skills none of them possess.
This is just the third time in Buffalo’s 45 drafts the team will pick in the top four. I’m greedy. I want a fourth time, too.
Edmonton, which picks third, needs serious help on defense. The Sabres’ organization needs a dramatic influx of talent at forward. I haven’t given up on Tyler Myers – he’s only 24 and has the skills to return to All-Star form – but the opportunity to flip blue-line depth for scoring punch is too great to resist.
I’ll see if the Oilers will take Myers and a second-round selection (as high as No. 31) for the third overall pick. If it works, big-bodied point machine Leon Draisaitl is coming to Buffalo along with Reinhart. It’s tempting to add Sam Bennett’s grit, but Draisaitl has a frame that is lacking in the organization.
Reinhart and Draisaitl immediately headline a forward stable that includes potential top-six talents Tyler Ennis, Zemgus Girgensons, Cody Hodgson, Joel Armia, Marcus Foligno and Mikhail Grigorenko. The defense still features prospects Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mark Pysyk, Jake McCabe and Chad Ruhwedel. The organization has balance.
Free agent shopping list
With the draft over, it’s time to look at free agency. It won’t take long.
Would it be nice to go after Colorado center Paul Stastny? Of course it would. But it’s not realistic. As Murray says, Buffalo will be a destination only for third-line guys who want to prove they can play on the first or second line.
A lot of Western New Yorkers are interested in Ryan Callahan. I’m not one of them. The 29-year-old from Rochester plays a game that’s hard on the body. I think he’ll be done by the time the Sabres hope to contend. He’s not worth the six-year, $40 million deal someone will give him, at least not in Buffalo.
The Sabres do need a veteran or two who can help the prospects navigate their learning curve. It would help if they play right wing because Drew Stafford and Chris Stewart, who are entering the last year of their contracts, will start the season on my team but certainly won’t finish it. They will be dealt at the trade deadline, unless an offer I can’t refuse comes earlier.
Devin Setoguchi heads my right wing free agent list. Although his point production is steadily dropping, he started with a winning organization in San Jose and can pass along tips to a team that is too accustomed to losing. The 27-year-old made $3.25 million last year. After putting up 11 goals and 27 points in 75 games with Winnipeg, he shouldn’t expect much of a raise. Hopefully, a three-year deal worth $11.75 million will get it done.
Foligno and Ennis need to be re-signed. I’d offer Foligno, who made $900,000 last year, two years at $4 million. It’s a decent bridge deal for the 22-year-old, who will get plenty of minutes and an ideal chance to prove himself worthy of more money next time.
Ennis is a trickier contract. The 24-year-old has finished a two-year deal that averaged $2.8 million, including a salary just above $3 million this year. He’ll look to his right in the dressing room and see Hodgson, who signed last fall for six years and $25.5 million. Ennis plays a bigger role than Hodgson, so he’ll want at least that.
Problem is, a bigger deal starts getting into No. 1 center money. Ennis is not a No. 1 center anywhere but Buffalo. My Sabres, however, need him to hold that spot until Reinhart and Draisaitl are ready. Would three years at $14 million, with $4 million in salary this season and $5 million each of the following two years, cut it? The deal would give him a nice payday now and allow him to become unrestricted at age 27.
If it all works, it would give my Sabres the following forward lines: Foligno-Ennis-Stafford; Hodgson-Girgensons-Stewart; Johan Larsson-Brian Flynn-Setoguchi; and Nicolas Deslauriers-Torrey Mitchell-Patrick Kaleta, with Matt Ellis as the extra forward.
Reinhart and Draisaitl would compete for lineup spots, and training camp will show if they’re ready for the NHL. If so, Flynn could move down the lineup and Mitchell would head to Rochester. No matter what, that group should compete most nights but still keep alive the dream of McDavid.
The young defensemen need a tutor, and this season showed that Christian Ehrhoff is not that person. I’d like to get rid of him, ideally for a similarly aged veteran who would embrace the teaching role. My primary objective would be to send Ehrhoff and restricted free agent Cory Conacher to New Jersey for Andy Greene.
The 31-year-old Greene played in all situations for the Devils, and his teammates voted the blue-liner their Unsung Hero. He’s the type of guy the Sabres need for their budding D-men. Conacher didn’t show enough to warrant staying, and the Devils always need someone with scoring potential.
The defense pairings would be Greene-Ristolainen, Zadorov-Pysyk and Mike Weber-Ruhwedel. McCabe would get seasoning in Rochester. Coach Ted Nolan liked Henrik Tallinder, and so do I. Hopefully, he’ll stay for one year at $2.5 million to be the seventh defenseman.
The goaltending duo of Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth is fine with me.
Checks are in the mail
With the roster set for opening night, we have one major problem. We’re not at the salary cap floor. The estimated minimum cap number for next season is $52 million. My lineup is $44.1 million, a shortfall of $7.9 million.
This is when it pays to have an owner who doesn’t care about money. I’m going to prove how much he doesn’t care when I ask him to spend $7.8 million on two guys who will never wear a Sabres uniform.
The careers of Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger and Boston’s Marc Savard are unfortunately over due to concussions. They can’t retire, though, or they don’t get paid. The Flyers and Bruins have been placing them on long-term injured reserve in order to receive cap relief. I’ll save their financial guys the trouble and acquire both of them. What will it cost? I can’t even venture to guess without talking to the teams since nothing like this has been done.
Unlike the Bruins and Flyers, I’ll put the players on regular IR and avoid cap relief. Pronger’s $4.94 million cap hit and Savard’s $4 million deal push my Sabres above the salary cap floor with a total of $53.04 million.
The deals are viable for two reasons. The first is most of their salaries have been paid. Pronger, who has a no-movement clause that has to be dealt with, is due $4 million this season but just $575,000 each of the next two years. Savard is scheduled to make $1.5 million in salary this year and $575,000 during his final two seasons.
Once we get to 2015-16 and I need the cap room, I can place the duo back on long-term IR to get relief. But that’s for next year’s GM for a Day.