Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Let's bring in some winners

No, the Sabres will not get the likes of Sidney Crosby, Johnathan Toews, Pavel Datsyuk or Ryan Getzlaf--all of them #1 centers on cup-winning teams.

It's probably safe to say that the likes of Corey Perry, Henrik Zetterberg, and any of the Staal brothers are out of reach as well. Although roomer has it that Pittsburgh may be looking into trading Jordan Staal.

As the team retools with some very capable pieces still intact and some talent coming up from the minors, maybe the best approach would be for the team to add some free agents who have that Cup ring, players who have been there and who have been successful.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon built a team in Florida with loads of veteran leadership and Cup-rings, and for the first time since 1999 the Cats made the playoffs. By no means should it be construed that a team can go deep into the playoffs without top-notch talent, as the Panthers first round exit attested to. But any talented/skill players, of which Florida has a few coming up, will have a much better chance of succeeding if surrounded by real hockey players who've been there.

Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi's team won the Stanley Cup this week with a group that had three former cup-winners on it--Rob Scuderi (PIT, 2009,) Justin Williams (CAR, 2006) and Colin Fraser (CHI, 2010.) The Kings drafted highly skilled players like Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty then surrounded them with some champions.

In Buffalo, since July 2007 when Cup-winner Chris Drury moved on, the Sabres have had only one player--Rob Niedermayer--with his name on the Stanley Cup.

Is it any wonder that the Sabres missed the playoffs three of five seasons? Is it any wonder that Niedermayer was on one of the playoff teams?

Granted, the Tom Golisano-era featuring it's break-even financial dictate hampered the process as did the team and city which were unappealing to veteran free agents.  Destinations like Anaheim, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles and others like like Philadelphia and NY (Rangers,) among others, offer money and/or history, and/or strong organizations, and/or great weather, and/or bustling metropolitan areas. As for Buffalo?


That being said. Money talks and Terry Pegula's hell-bent upon building a winner.

Although money is a always a factor, most veteran, cup-winning players also want to go to a team that's ready to compete for the cup.

Over the past few off seasons, big name free agents are hitting the open market less frequently. Last season, Conn Smythe Trophy winning forward Brad Richards was the big fish. He went to the Rangers which offered everything a star player could want. After that, it was pretty thin up-front.

Which leads us to this off season. Similar to last year, it's a thin crop of potential free agents up front with only Devils winger Zach Parise clearly standing out.

But, as usual, bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing d-men are always readily available come July 1 and every year there are a few with their name on the Stanely Cup who could add a solid veteran presence to a team. Snagging one or maybe even two would go a long way in the leadership department. Leadership that's been sparse in Buffalo since Drury left town five years ago.

The following three players are bottom-six role players who should be available on July 1st. The teams that they're with were considered cup-contenders when they signed. Signing one or more would not break the bank, would add leadership and would add credibility to the organization.

Jason Arnott, third line center--$2.5M last season, Stanley Cup-NJD, 2000

Drafted #7 overall (EDM, 1993) the big (6'5, 220 lb,) well-traveled, (EDM, NJD [twice,] DAL, NSH, WSH, STL,) veteran center signed a one-year contract with the Blues last season and added a strong veteran presence to a very young St. Louis team.

His regular season stats last year are on par with his previous three seasons (17g, 17a, plus-13) while his playoff numbers were way off (7 games, 1g, 0a, minus-1) as the Blues were swept in the second round by the eventual Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings.

At 37 years old, Arnott can still put the puck in the net and/or set up his linemates, is responsible in his own end and can play on the second powerplay unit.

Mike Knuble, third line/bottom-six RW--$2M last season, Stanely Cup-DET, 1998

Knuble's getting up there, no doubt about it. The soon to be 40 yr. old (July 4) was drafted by Detroit in 1991.

He's also well travelled with stops in NY (Rangers,) Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. He had a block of seasons with the Bruins, Flyers and Capitals where his power forward attributes, grit and professionalism netted him no less than 20 goals eight years running and was a minus-player only once (-3, 2007-08, PHI) during that span.

He's also on the decline. His production has plummeted from 24g, 16a, plus-10 in 2010-11 to 6g, 12a, minus-15 this past season.

Captials GM George McPhee has already cut ties with Knuble and the former Cap took it all in stride.

Although age has caught up to him, his stats from last season are somewhat skewed as the team had a defensive mind-set for the better part of the season, especially after Dale Hunter took over.

How much does he have left in him?

His playoff line for last month was 11 games, 2g, 1a, plus-3. Obviously nothing spectacular, but he did contribute and was someone comfortable in his role.

Sammy Pahlsson, checking line center--$2.265M last season, Stanely Cup-Anaheim, 2007

The youngest of the three in this group, Pahlsson won't turn 35 until December.

Drafted by Colorado in 1996, he was part of the Ray Borque trade with Boston in 2000. Pahlsson also had stops in Anaheim, Columbus and, most recently, Vancouver. Interestingly enough, the only free agent contract he signed was with the Blue Jackets.

The veteran checking line center is defensively sound, can anchor a penalty kill and is real strong on the faceoff dot.

His production throughout his career is consistent with a fourth-liner so one should not expect anything more offensively, although he does seem to pick it up slightly in the playoffs.

Before the Sabres entertain the thought of landing "the big fish" in free agency, if one does become available, say next off season, they'll need to overcome the obstacles that face them. We know that Pegula's not afraid to pony up for a player, but Team President Ted Black's "Hockey Heaven" needs to take a big step forward as well.

For example, Detroit as a city has been on the decline for years, yet it's hockey team is anchored by a strong organization with a commitment to winning and they still land top free agents, at a discount, no less.

For Buffalo, they'll still need to build step-by-step, take gambles and essentially throw away some money to find the pieces that will mesh.

Pegula and Co. started the process last off-season as they dove into free agency. As for this season, they shouldn't need to, and may not have the proper amount of cap-space for a Ville Leino-type overpayment.

Their roster is filled with "skill" and augmented by some young grit, but what seems to have been lacking the past five seasons is bonafide leadership, especially up-front.

There's still the upcoming draft, and the potential for trades, and there's no doubt that if Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal were truly available, the Sabres would have a keen interest in a player like him. Unfortunately, this off season, the team may need to focus upon bottom-six leadership for now.

And this may be a good off-season to address that.

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