This could be Jay McKee's final playoff push with the Buffalo Sabres.
Buffalo's longest-tenured player will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Based on the club's policy of not entertaining contract extensions while games are being played, McKee has trouble being optimistic about his return.
The veteran defenseman said he would prefer to stay, but admitted it would be difficult for the Sabres to retain him once he hits the open market. The longer the Sabres are silent, the louder money talks.
"I would assume teams have a better opportunity to keep their players if they negotiated during the season," McKee said. "I understand that unrestricted free agents tend to move if they're not signed in-season. Once 30 teams have the option to bid on a player they don't end up in the same spot.
"That's where most of my disappointment is coming from because I'm aware once I get to the summer it's more difficult for teams to keep their players. It's a simple fact. I'm very aware I may end up somewhere else."
Sabres fans looking for an example need to glance no further back than last summer, when defenseman Alexei Zhitnik was up for auction. The Sabres wanted to keep him, but financially they couldn't compete with the highest bidders. Zhitnik signed with the New York Islanders for $3.515 million, a sum nearly $600,000 greater than the Sabres' highest-paid player, Chris Drury.
"I know Alex really loved it here, and he wanted to be back, but he's somewhere else," said McKee, who's making $1.596 million.
"That's what happens when teams start bidding."
Three other Sabres are in line for unrestricted free agency after this season. They are defensemen Teppo Numminen ($2 million) and Rory Fitzpatrick ($532,000) and winger Mike Grier ($1.364 million).
Only McKee and his agent, Pat Morris, have approached the Sabres about a contract extension since teams were allowed to engage in contract talks Jan. 1.
"We felt at this time it was more important to focus on this season and not pick and choose among the free agents, but rather address it after the season," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. "I haven't gotten into discussions with players on contracts or their future plans."
Regier acknowledged the increased risk in waiting until after the season, but indicated he's comfortable with it. He noted teams have little control over an unrestricted free agent no matter when talks commence.
"The reality is all of the players ultimately decide," Regier said. "It's their choice regardless."
The 28-year-old McKee said his contract status would not affect him on the ice.
"No question, it's on every player's mind when his future is uncertain," McKee said. "But the focus here is playing hockey and playing hard for each other and the city. It's not going to be a distraction. Not for me."
McKee has been a Sabre his entire career. He has played 557 regular-season games and 34 playoff games.
He's having one of his best seasons with four goals (one away from his career-high) and eight assists (five away). He ranks second in the NHL with 158 blocked shots, one behind Colorado Avalanche defenseman Karlis Skrastins, who has played nine more games.
McKee wanted a multiyear contract last summer, when he was a restricted free agent. But the Sabres were concerned with the fact he played only 102 games the previous two seasons because of injuries, and there were questions about how effective his style would be under the NHL's new rules. The Sabres were betting on mobile defensemen rather than brutes.
"This season as a whole has been rewarding," McKee said. "Last summer if we would have done something it would have been financially better for them, but there was no certainty to how things would go this year.
"When a player is trying to work on a long-term deal there's risk on both sides. For them, the risk was my knee might not hold up, or I might not be able to make the adjustment to the new rules. On the other side, they were at the risk of me walking into the summer unrestricted."
McKee and Numminen would be two of the better defensemen to hit the open market.
Also expected to be available are stars Zdeno Chara, Rob Blake, Niklas Lidstrom, Ed Jovanovski, Wade Redden, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle. McKee and Numminen plausibly could be lumped into the next tier of blue-liners along with Brendan Witt, Ruslan Salei and Mattias Norstrom.
"I assume the summer is when [the Sabres] will want to start talking," McKee said, "but when you get to that point it would be a very unintelligent business move to go all the way to the summer and not see what other teams have to say.
"As much as I want to be here there's a lot of money out there -- with the cap going up as well -- that teams may be willing to spend."
After practice Monday in HSBC Arena, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said forward Jochen Hecht has recovered from a knee injury and would play in Wednesday night's home game against the Atlanta Thrashers. Center Tim Connolly (knee) and defenseman Dmitri Kalinin (shoulder) have yet to be cleared for contact but should be back within a few more games.
Absent from the workout were Czech winger Ales Kotalik, Russian winger Maxim Afinogenov and Finnish defensemen Toni Lydman and Numminen, all of whom were migrating from the Olympics. Kotalik and Afinogenov should be at practice today. The silver-winning Finns aren't due until Wednesday, but are expected to play.