Jul. 1what a glorious day. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing, and being outdoors is the place to be. It’s Canada Day, so Buffalo’s neighbors to the north are all celebrating their country’s founding. Oh yeah, it’s also the start of NHL free agency.

 

Today marks the start of either spot-on or fatal changes to the rosters of hockey clubs all over the league. The latter has been plaguing the Buffalo Sabres for the past couple yearsdare I say it’ll happen again?

 

The chances, unfortunately, are probable. General Manager, Darcy Regier, wants to trade rather than sign free agents. It may take a while for anything to get done this summer because, according to Darcy, the market isn’t exactly set in stone yet.

 

Let’s first address what the Sabres covered in this year’s entry draft. Hard-nosed, gritty players were drafted by the blue and gold, and that is exactly what Buffalo needs (and what the fans have been screaming for). Players like Zack Kassian and Marcus Foligno are sure bets to make grounds in the NHL when their times come.

 

If the Sabres want to be a playoff contender in the 2009-2010 season, the management has to be honest with themselves. Major improvements are needed in every area.

 

The defense has been lacking for years. The offense is clearly missing a vital player or two. And the goaltending situation tends to be the significant difference in making the playoffs or not.

 

Buffalo has enough defensive depth to cart the unnecessary players out. Prospects like Chris Butler (a shoo-in), Mike Weber, and Tyler Myers are all players that can possibly fill the gaps. An experienced defenseman or two brought in via free agency or trade would complete sufficient balance between young and old.

 

A prospect like Tim Kennedy or Nathan Gerbe can add energy and prowess to scoring, or if Mathieu Darche is re-signed, leadership to the forwards.

 

Everyone knows the goaltending situation. Coach Lindy Ruff will lose faith in the backup goaltender and will overplay star goaltender Ryan Miller. That simply cannot happen if any team wants to make a viable playoff push.

 

Luckily, the chances of Maxim Afinogenov returning are slim to none. His flashy play has only hampered the Sabres offensive chances when he was seldom in the lineup the past two seasons. Luckily, he doesn’t want to return. That’s $3 million or so of salary cap saved. If he signs anywhere, it will most likely be the KHL, the safe haven of all Russian wash-outs.

 

Andrew Peters is another player that money shouldn’t be wasted on. Peters is a great guy, and he brings a lot of character to the dressing room and community, yes, but he only played 29 games last season. His services aren’t needed any longer since many players are willing to step up to the plate and defend their teammates whenever needed.

 

Take what would be given to Peters as a contract renewal and overpay Matt Ellis. A few teams might be willing to pay him that amount of money since Ellis proved himself as a grinder who can score with the right linemates.

 

Dominic Moore’s name hasn’t even been a blip on the radar. Moore should be given another shot because he led by example every time he stepped onto the ice in a Sabres uniform after he was traded here Mar. 4. He didn’t get off on the right foot; starting the season with the team could be a pleasant surprise.

 

Whether the two oldest defensemen on the team return is entirely up to Teppo Numminen and Jaroslav Spacek. Numminen has shown how he has aged and retirement could be up his alley. While Spacek will most likely test the free market since Regier only wants to sign him short term and Spacek is looking for the opposite. If Spacek and his booming shot returns, it will be for far too much money.

 

But considering Regier wants to mainly trade this summer, that should be discussed. The players on the chopping block are easy to identify.

 

Jochen Hecht is a possibility and for good reason. He played quite well two seasons ago and was just dismal this year. Yet, knowing the front office and their forgiving qualities, he’ll be given the opportunity to redeem his sub par season.

 

The once dynamic duo of Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder are also names being thrown around. If either stays, it will be Lydman because his shot blocking ability was useful, but if the rumors about Jay McKee are true, he’ll be moved along.

 

Nathan Paetsch could be added to a packaged deal due to his savvy with playing offense or defense.

 

San Jose’s Ryan Clowe is a restricted free agent Sabres fans would love to see on the roster. Too bad he was offered a qualifying sheet so the Sharks still retain his initial rights. The personnel would never have the guts to send an offer sheet over after what happened with Thomas Vanek two summers ago.

 

There is some hope this summer, though. By signing Tim Connolly to a contract extension and extending qualifying offers to up-and-coming stars Drew Stafford, Patrick Kaleta, Clarke MacArthur, Andrej Sekera, and Mark Mancari, the Sabres are proving they are willing to keep key players.

 

Mind-boggling changes to the roster will not be seen this summer. This is due to both finances and the management’s feeble attempts at making much-needed adjustments.

 

Just sit back, don’t fret, and hope that enough subtle changes are made to make it to the playoffs. And don’t think about how you’ll receive a higher quality level of entertainment from the Buffalo Bandits after buying season tickets for roughly the same price as a jersey.

Twas the night before NHL Free Agency, tomorrow a day filled with wows

no player was more eager, than in the Heatley house.

 

The managers evaluated their free agents with care,

in hopes that their acquisitions would bring a cup this year.

 

Gary Bettman was nestled, all snug in his bed

for he's only happy no team's in Hamilton.

 

And in the town, that bares the leaf

Brian Burke brings the 42-year-old cup drought fans relief.

 

When out on this day we expect contracts to shatter

and our old buddy Eklund for bringing crazy rumor chatter. (the guys nuts)

 

Away to the teams, these players go oh so fast

all who hope their former salaries are now surpassed.

 

For each players destination, for no body knows

for only the biggest contract, is where that player will go. (so true)

 

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear

Brian Burke and Bob Gainey, fighting up there!

 

With a loud booming voice, so fiery and loud

one only knew that Glen Sather was around.

 

More rapid than ever, the GM's a'came

all playing the newly acquainted Heatley game.

 

"Once Thrasher! now Senator! Now leaving for new!

"On fire he twas!" shouted the Bidders adieu!

 

To the front of the league! To the Top of the scoring of all!

Now come to us, come to us Danny, and end this rugged brawl!

 

Then Mr. Bettman sprang to his phones, to his managers gave a whistle

and the free agency period began, like a shot of a missile.

 

But I heard his exclaim before he hung up the phone

"HAPPY SHOPPING, AND FOR WHERE THE PLAYERS GO IS UNKNOWN!"

 

Good luck to every ones favorite teams tomorrow, and happy bidding!

(PS. Hope you enjoyed this article!)

 

 

The last two seasons have not been what Sabres fans would call a success. Three years removed from back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, Buffalo fans are not going to settle for a third straight 10th place finish.

General Manager Darcy Regier and Head Coach Lindy Ruff both were placed on the chopping block after the season, and they both survived, thankfully. But the pressure is now on them both to turn this franchise back into a winner. That task will begin in earnest tomorrow when free agency officially is underway at noon.

At noon, Jaroslav Spacek, Dominic Moore, Maxim Afinogenov, Andrew Peters, Teppo Numminen and Matt Ellis will be up for grabs. Drew Stafford, Andrej Sekera and Clarke MacArthur will be able to be extended offer sheets as restricted free agents. Only Sekera and MacArthur are seen as locks to be back.

Spacek will command a similar salary to his current $3.3 million per season and was the Sabres' highest scoring defenseman last season. The Sabres would love him back, but he may simply be in the way of the likes of Mike Weber, Tyler Myers or any one in their deep defensive prospect pool.

Stafford is rumored to have a target on his back much like Thomas Vanek did a few summers ago. While Stafford will not be offered the same ridiculous deal, he may be able to net the Sabres a few first round draft picks. If that is the case, I would not be surprised to see Darcy jump on the picks to free up some money for other use.

Stafford has shown flashes, but he has not established himself as Vanek did with his 40-goal season. It simply is not worth the money to keep him when the opportunity to grab a few more first-round talents presents itself.

If Stafford goes, as well as Numminen, Spacek and Afinogenov, the ability to go out and secure a top-6 forward is now a reality. Three names spring to the top of the list: Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Martin Havlat.

Havlat is the biggest stretch of the three because he could easily command $7 million a year if teams look past his reputation of being an eggshell. The last thing the Sabres need is another Tim Connolly on their hands. But his grit was on display in the Western Conference Finals when he played after being knocked out cold the previous game.

Gionta has the ability to score 40-goals a year, but he falls into the small category that has dogged the Sabres the past few years. He also had a down year last year and may not be worth the $5 million plus he'll command. But he is not afraid to mix it up and he is a hometown boy, as he's from Rochester, N.Y. and played for the Buffalo Junior Sabres.

Cammalleri seems to be the best fit, and he has expressed interest in coming to Buffalo in the past when he played with the Los Angeles Kings. He would cost somewhere in the $6 million range and if paired with Vanek, Connolly, or both, could be just as productive as he was this year with 39 goals. Again, the knock is his size (5'9/185), but he has only missed more than one game once in his career and has definitive goal scoring talent.

No matter, Regier needs to make a statement in the next few weeks that shows that he is willing to do what it takes to make the Sabres a contender. The draft Friday was a great step forward with the selection of Zack Kassian 13th overall. Widely regarded as the meanest player in the draft, the selection was a far cry from what the Sabres have been characterized as the past few seasons: small and not physical.

A top-6 forward and a steady defenseman should propel the Sabres back into the playoffs and put the Sabres back on the track that netted them the President's Trophy.

Ryan Miller was handed an invitation to the 2010 Olympic Camp Aug. 17-19 in Woodridge Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, according to CTVOlympics.ca. 

The roster was announced today, and Miller will have company. Boston Bruin Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick join the Sabre stalwart between the pipes.

The goaltenders bring one question to mind. If these are indeed the goalies headed to the Olympics, who starts? 

Miller, arguably, has had the more consistent early career, but Thomas was phenomenal this past season, leading the Bruins to the Eastern Conference title. 

One thing's for sure: Team USA, this time around, selected better talent and more accomplished players.

Miller was snubbed out of the Olympics in 2006 when Rick DiPietro headlined a trio that included Robert Esche and John Grahame, both of whom are career backups. 

As the article states, this Team USA is a youthful one, with only five players who have prior Olympic experience in their hip pocket.

Before the 5 p.m. deadline to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents, Darcy Regier announced yesterday the Buffalo Sabres' organization offers to Drew Stafford, Andrej Sekera, and Clarke MacArthur.

In terms of importance and how well they played, Drew Stafford is probably the top priority within this young group—but how much is he worth?

Stafford was seventh last year in the scoring department on the Sabres team and tied for third with Jason Pominville in goals.

Every time I pop open an article about Stafford being an RFA, I keep reading about the offer sheet Thomas Vanek received from Edmonton two years ago that the Sabres absolutely had to match.

This could turn out the same way if the team isn't careful.

This is why I ask, how much is Drew Stafford truly worth?

If you compare both players' stats in the year they became an RFA, Vanek's are a lot higher.

You have to remember to compare the two teams though. In 2006-07, the Sabres were almost unstoppable (let's forget about the ECFs for a bit). Vanek didn't have to deal with first-line players because he was a third-line, left winger.

Stafford's stats are pretty good considering how different the team was this year. Points were more evenly spread out. The Sabres were up and down but he managed to get 45 points in 79 games.

Regier has said that he wants to keep all of the RFAs here and that they will match any offer, but would they if Stafford received a lucrative offer just like Vanek did?

It may not be well deserved, but it just goes to show how crazy the league has become with deals nowadays. GMs are afraid of their prized players possibly being nabbed when they're RFAs. In turn, they offer them contracts that include long-term deals with a large amount of money spread throughout.

I can only imagine what will happen when the salary cap is eventually lowered.

Coming from the little city of Peterborough, Ontario, I have grown up watching and idolizing players that played for the hometown team.

You may or may not have heard of the organization before, but the Peterborough Petes are one of the, if not the most historic, junior teams in Canada. Founded in the late 1950's, the Petes have been a factory for NHL players.

They pump out more players then any other franchise in the world: Steve Yzerman, Bob Gainey, Larry Murphy, Steve Larmer, Chris Pronger, and more recently Eric and Jordan Staal (just to name a few).

The puck doesn't stop at the players either. Legendary coaches like Scotty Bowman, Roger Neilson, and Mike Keenan all got their start in this humble little town. Even though many players go through this organization to the big leagues, it still makes me very happy to see the next batch strike gold.

One player in particular is Zack Kassian, recently drafted thirteenth overall in this recent entry draft to the Buffalo Sabres. Zack had a particularly hard road to travel and it makes me very happy to see him overcome it to make the most of the opportunity given to him.

Zack was born in LaSalle, Ontario just near Windsor. At the young age of 12 he lost his dad to a heart condition. When Kassian was growing up he relied on his older brother Mike, who was always there for him. Mike kept Zack out of trouble, driving him to all his games, and was a pivotal part in raising him. If you were to ask him who his idol was without a doubt the first name out of his mouth would be his brother Mike.

Zack Kassian finally caught his break in 2007 when he was drafted fourth overall in the OHL Priority Selection to the Peterborough Petes. Appearing in 58 games in his rookies campaign, Zack had a less then stellar season, only tallying 9 goals and 21 assists.

What may have seemed like a bust turned right around the next season. After the offseason he came into camp with a new life. Storming out of the gates, Zack reached his previous season totals before a third of the season even finished. In that season he managed to triple his previous years totals and assert himself as a premier power forward in the league. He even became one of the toughest, meanest players in the league (you may recall when Kassian knocked John Tavares out of a prospects game).

These gained attributes propelled him to one of the top prospects in the league and eventually a great pickup for the Buffalo Sabres.

Congratulations Zack, nobody deserves it more than you.

Some will come, and some will go.

The age of free agency and arbitration is upon us; that inevitable time where any number of deals can be made (or not made, for that matter.)

The Sabres enter this year's market with a total of 20 free agents on their hands (nine unrestricted, 11 restricted.) That number includes Marek Zagrapan, who has signed with a Russian club.

So, let's take a look at some of the most prominent free agents the Sabres have to offer the market.

Unrestricted free agent Max Afinogenov is a tough one.

A lot of Buffalo fans seem to love him—his speed is undeniably impressive, but he has yet to prove himself and have one stable season.

It's unfortunate, because he could really be a strong player in a few years, but Afinogenov has probably played his last game as a Sabre.

Mathieu Darche has yet to play a game with the Sabres, and spent all of last season playing in the AHL with the Portland Pirates. He's a tough player with a lot of grit (as was evident when the Pirates hosted the Albany River Rats at the Sabres' home arena last season), and could really be useful to the organization.

Will they sign him?

Matt Ellis, Colin Murphy, and Colton Fretter (all unrestricted) spent last season with the Pirates as well, with Ellis being the only one of the three to see any time in the NHL. Murphy and Fretter are both still young, and could develop into good players with some experience.

Dominic Moore, a recent acquisition, will also become an unrestricted free agent on Jul. 1. Last season, Moore had 13 goals and 32 assists in 81 games (not all with the Sabres, of course), and, if the Sabres sign him, they won't regret it.

He's a power forward.

Rounding out the Sabres' unrestricted free agent list are Andrew Peters, Teppo Numminen, and Jaroslav Spacek. Peters brings grit and size to an otherwise average-sized team, and Sabres fans seem to have mixed opinions about his contract.

But, I ask you, Sabres fans, to imagine a team without Peters. While there are other "tough guys" on the team, Petey is undoubtedly the headmaster.

Sign him.

Last year at this time, we weren't even sure if Numminen would be back for another season. After his heart problems, he managed to have a strong comeback.

And now, we are again not certain.

He's a great player and a great guy, and, at 40-years-old, can provide the veteran experience a lot of other Sabres don't have. He's the father figure on the team, and I hope that he continues to be a part of the organization even if the Sabres don't sign him.

Spacek is a must-sign.

He led all Sabres defensemen in multi-point games last season, and he's a fun guy to have around.

Sign him, and let Teppo have a management position.

So, that's the unrestricted section.

As was previously stated, Marek Zagrapan has signed with Russia. He's gone, and it's unlikely he'll come back as he felt the Sabres weren't giving him an opportunity.

Of the restricted free agents, there are several must-signs, namely Andrej Sekera, Patrick Kaleta, and Drew Stafford.

These three youngsters have proved themselves and become a key part of the team, rising up from the ranks of the NHL in a short period of time.

Kaleta brings the grit (but also knows how to score, and would have had a better season if not for all the injuries), Sekera is a strong young defenseman (and the pairing between him & Spacek is unstoppable), and Stafford is a power forward who's only going to get better.

Next comes Clarke MacArthur. He's good, but if the Sabres have to sacrifice someone, it has to be him.

He has never been particularly great, and, although it'd be sad to see him go, he might be able to have a stronger career elsewhere.

Rounding out the restricted free agents are all players who spent the season in Portland: forwards Jimmy Bonneau, Mark Mancari, and Dylan Hunter; defensemen Michael Funk and Mike Card, and goaltender Adam Dennis.

Jimmy Bonneau proved himself—in my eyes—at last season's Portland/Albany game at HSBC Arena. He fought and continued to battle for his team and teammates even while in the penalty box.

He's not afraid to stick his neck in other people's business, and he's worth signing.

Mark Mancari is a great scorer and a one-time AHL All-Star, but where his true skill lies is on the power play. He may need to spend a bit more time in the AHL due to space constraints on the Sabres team, but he's also worth signing for future considerations.

Dylan Hunter and Adam Dennis are both strong players. Dennis has been called up to the Sabres several times, and it'll be interesting to see what the Sabres do with these two.

Lastly come the two Mikes: Funk and Card.

Two defensemen and great players who the Sabres should sign without issue. When the veteran D leave, these two will come in and take over.

So now, we wait.

What, oh what, will Mr. Regier do this year?

We'll find out soon enough.

Andy Strickland has reported the St. Louis Blues have bought out the contract of veteran defenseman, Jay McKee, who had just one year left on a four-year, $16 million deal.

McKee, who will turn 32 in September, battled through many injuries while in St. Louis, including a fractured leg during the 2006-07 season that caused him to miss 59 games. Last season, McKee played 69 regular season games for the playoff-bound Blues, his most since his final season in Buffalo a few years previous.

The Kingston, Ontario native is a very sound, physical defenseman who can also accommodate any team in the leadership department.

Known for his shot-blocking ability, McKee was among league leaders in the category in 2005-06. 

McKee was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres 14th overall in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. He spent 13 seasons in Buffalo before the Blues signed him as a free agent after the 2005-06 season.

During the off-season, he spends much of his time living in the Western New York area and I'm sure if Sabres' General Manager Darcy Regier came calling, McKee would be glad to return to his former club.

He never wanted to leave Buffalo in the first place, but the team was unwilling to spend the money. Next season, he would likely take a dramatic pay cut from his previous salary of $4 million per.

The Sabres could definitely use his services. Besides Craig Rivet, the team lacks a gritty defenseman who is willing to drop the gloves and stick up for his teammates.

Yes, the Sabres have a couple defensemen in their system ready to be called up to the big leagues, but it is unknown if they're ready to take on a full NHL season.

Mike Weber and the recently signed, Tyler Myers, are the two likely candidates to step in and anchor the Sabres' back end in the next couple years. Weber is obviously closer than Myers.

When McKee left via free agency a few years ago, it can be argued that a piece of the Sabres locker room was lost. The heart and intensity McKee brought each night was rarely exemplified since his departure (except for maybe Chris Drury, who we all know left a year after).

It can also be argued that if McKee wasn't sidelined with a staph infection (which resulted from blocking shots) for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus Carolina, the Sabres may have found their way past the Hurricanes.

At two years, around $4 million, why not? He would be a very welcome addition to a rather soft Sabres blue line.

***

WGR 550 Sports Radio in Buffalo reported today that the Sabres have extended qualifying offers to three of their current restricted free agents. The team's current restricted free agents are Drew Stafford, Clarke MacArthur, Mark Mancari, Pat Kaleta and Andrej Sekera. Regier would not comment on the players they chose not to extend qualifying offers to.

MacArthur is scheduled to have a salary arbitration hearing sometime in the near future.

The 2009 NHL Entry Draft has come and gone, leaving many to analyze the aftermath. 

I'm going give you a recap of what the Buffalo Sabres did with their selections, and what it could mean for the future of the club.

Heading into the draft, there were a few issues that needed addressing: firstly, the team lacked a puck-moving defenseman and had since the departure of Brian Campbell. Finding one in the middle of the first round wasn't likely heading into the weekend, however.

Secondly, the team was painfully undersized. Finding a top-six forward with size and toughness would be a huge priority.

The third issue, secondary scoring, could even be addressed in one pick.

So, with their first selection, No. 13 overall, the Sabres selected right winger Zack Kassian from the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. Kassian fits the size quota well, coming in at the 6'2" 215 lb range.

He improved tremendously from 2007-08 to last season, jumping from nine goals to 24, while improving his point total from 21 to 63.

Ideally, he will create plays for his smaller linemates by using his size in the corners and along the boards. He has the ability to be a smasher with some hands, and could top out as a second-liner (should he develop properly).

With their third-round selection, they added even more size with defenseman Brayden McNabb from Kootenay of the Western Hockey League.

McNabb is a monster, tipping the scales at 6'4" 200lbs. He says that he patterns himself after Robyn Regehr for his steady, stay-at-home style of play. Frankly, if the kid can turn out to be anything like Regehr, that's a huge plus for the Sabres.

In the fourth round, Buffalo drew from within the Sabre family, so to speak, by selecting former Sabre Mike Foligno's son, Marcus. Another big kid, measuring in at 6'2" 200 lbs., Foligno has the skills to be a power forward, but he's a project, to say the least.

He'll need to work on his hands, but he likes driving to the net and, frankly, guys like Dave Andreychuk (no disrespect) made a career out of that.

Rounding out the draft are defenseman Mark Adams (6'1" 187), goaltender Connor Knapp (6'5" 215), and winger Maxime Legault (6'2" 195). 

Overall, it's a solid class if the Sabres' top two picks turn out well. Selecting a guy like Kassian was a big need, and he has a lot of potential to be an impact player. The Sabres added a ton of size here, of which they desperately needed.

A solid weekend's work for the front office. Let's just hope these kids pan out.

With the No. 13 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres have selected Zack Kassian.

Kassian played for Peterborough in the OHL. 

He finished last season with 24 goals and 63 points.