One month ago, Derek Roy was considered the Buffalo Sabres' third-best center and was on the payroll for $627,000.
His status soared Friday.
Roy and the Sabres avoided salary arbitration when he signed a six-year contract worth $24 million, making him the team's second-richest player behind linemate Thomas Vanek.
"It's indicative of the importance we feel in the role that he can play on this hockey club, not just next season but down the road," Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said.
Roy was surprised at the length of the deal, which extends three seasons into what would have been his unrestricted free agency. Roy and agent Larry Kelly requested a five-year contract, but the Sabres responded Thursday night with a six-year proposal. The Sabres then increased the money Friday morning. Roy was hooked.
"This was longer than I expected," Roy said. "We weren't even thinking about six years. That's a long time. But Buffalo is a place I want to be. I can't see myself playing anywhere else."
Hockey insiders projected the 24-year-old would have received an arbitration judgment around $3.5 million -- based on such comparable players as Los Angeles Kings winger Alexander Frolov, Edmonton Oilers winger Ales Hemsky and Florida Panthers center Nathan Horton -- had he gone ahead with his hearing.
But arbitration contracts can be for only one or two seasons at the club's option, and the Sabres were willing to spend more to have Roy locked up through 2012-13. If Roy were to develop into a point-per-game contributor, then his value would skyrocket the next time he went to arbitration.
Roy will receive $3 million this season, $3.5 million in the second and third seasons, $4 million in the fourth, $4.5 million in the fifth and $5.5 million in the sixth.
"I think this contract, six years down the road, we'll look at it as very good for the player and very good for the organization," Regier said. "We're certainly paying him for those unrestricted years and expect the performance."
Because of the way other teams are operating under the salary cap, the Sabres this summer have been nudged out of their comfort zone in offering longer contracts than they used to. The Sabres would retain restricted free agents with one- or two-year contracts. Three-year contracts were acceptable for key players, while four-year deals were made in special cases.
Across the NHL, however, teams are enticing players with lengthier contracts that make salary-cap numbers (total dollars divided by years) palatable. The Sabres made unsuccessful five-year offers to co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury and were forced to swallow Vanek's seven-year deal to prevent the Oilers from poaching him.
"You have to identify the players that you think are either in your core or can be or will be a part of the core, and you have to make the decisions earlier than you did in the past, and you have to make them for a longer period of time," Regier said.
Roy's $4 million average salary raises Buffalo's team salary-cap figure to about $44.75 million. Couple Roy's deal with Vanek's seven-year, $50 million pact and the Sabres are spending 25 percent of their payroll on two players who average just under 24 years old.
The lone unsigned Sabre is defenseman Nathan Paetsch. His arbitration hearing is scheduled for Thursday, but Regier said he would like to sign him to a multi-year deal beforehand.
In his first season in which he made the squad out of training camp, Roy had 21 goals, 63 points and a plus-37 rating that ranked fifth in the NHL. His 42 assists were second only to Briere for Buffalo. Roy added two goals and seven points in 16 playoff games.
Does Roy feel ready to become a true No. 1 NHL center?
"I do," Roy replied. "I've been through a lot, getting sent down [to the minors at the end of 2003-04 and out of training camp in 2005]. It wasn't an easy road to get up here. I have had two good seasons and improved every year. The key thing right now is being in that position to score goals and be the go-to guy.
"I'm happy to be in that position. It's disappointing to see guys like Chris and Danny go, but for my career I think it's going to be good. It's going to be a challenge, and I'm ready for it."
Roy will have the benefit of centering the only line that could return intact from the defending Presidents' Trophy winners -- if coach Lindy Ruff decides to reunite the trio. Top goal scorer Vanek is back, as is right winger Maxim Afinogenov, the Sabres' top scorer two seasons ago.
On Friday's drive back to Buffalo from Toronto, where his hearing would have taken place, Roy received a congratulatory call from Vanek.
"We've played together for three years, counting one season in Rochester," Roy said. "Our progression has elevated our game each year. We challenge each other. We're going to be together for a long time now."