As Tim Murray kept bringing veteran players into the Sabres’ organization – a total of five with 2,690 games played among them – he thought about Buffalo’s prospects. He pictured their reactions as the impressive acquisitions unfolded.
“I think our kids are sitting at home going, ‘Wow,’ ” Murray said Tuesday. “They know these players. They watch the National Hockey League. They know the quality of the player. They know the quality of the person. They know the character.
“As excited as they are to get drafted by Buffalo in the last couple years, they know it’s a team that’s not there. We can say it’s a team on the rise, but people have to see that. I just think there are some kids at home going, ‘This is great.’ ”
It’s easy to assume young players such as Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen are indeed thrilled after the Sabres created headlines on the opening day of free agency. Buffalo more than accomplished its goal of bringing in respected leaders. The Sabres said they were hoping for two, so to acquire five – Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson, Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros and Cody McCormick – was a major accomplishment. “There were more than what we got done,” Murray said in First Niagara Center. “It wasn’t just these guys that want to come here. There were other choices. There still are, but these were the guys we thought we should go forward quickly with for what we wanted to achieve, and it happened in about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
“We’re trying to rebuild an organization into a top organization. Today shows that we finished in 30th place and there are quality players that want to come here.”
The list starts with Gionta. There was mutual interest between the Sabres and the Rochester native heading into the day, and it culminated with the right winger signing a three-year deal worth $4.25 million per season. There’s a no-movement clause during the first two years and a limited no-trade in the final season, but Murray has no plans to send the 35-year-old anywhere other than a locker stall near his youngsters.
“He was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a storied franchise, a playoff team,” said the general manager. “That’s real stuff. That’s legendary stuff. He’s now a Buffalo Sabre.”
Gionta, who’s topped the 20-goal mark seven times, is looking forward to the challenges that awaits in Buffalo.
“Obviously, the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, but it would be nice to work with the young kids and build something there,” he said by phone. “It’s a great hockey market, and they’re very passionate fans. To bring it back to where it should be is the goal.”
Gionta’s eagerness to join the Sabres helped the team with its first acquisition of the day. Gorges, a 29-year-old defenseman, added Buffalo to the teams to which he’d accept a trade after learning Gionta might be coming. The Sabres acquired Gorges from Montreal in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, a selection previously picked up from Minnesota.
Gorges is a heart-and-soul player with a fierce hatred of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so he should be able to teach Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk, Nikita Zadorov and Buffalo’s other young blue-liners how to play with passion. He has four seasons left on a six-year deal that pays $3.9 million annually.
While Gorges will help in the defensive zone, Meszaros will provide offensive assistance to the blue line. The 28-year-old has 56 goals and 224 points in 585 games. He spent three seasons in Ottawa, including one while Murray was the assistant GM.
“I explained to him that I think he should come here and become the player he once was, the player I used to know,” said Murray, who handed out a one-year, $4.125 million deal. “We could decide to move forward with him, or he gets moved to a contender at the deadline, and that’s a positive also.”
Buffalo fans don’t need introductions to Moulson and McCormick. They played for the Sabres last season and were shipped to Minnesota together at the trade deadline. Moulson came back for five years and $25 million, with a reported no-trade clause. McCormick signed a three-year deal worth $1.5 million per season.
Moulson’s desire to return resonated with Gionta. “The fact he came back after being there for a little bit shows his confidence in the organization and the direction they want to go in,” he said.
The Sabres, who also re-signed restricted free agent Marcus Foligno to a two-year, $3.75 million deal, breezed past the salary cap floor by taking on $20.65 million in contracts this season. All told, the six transactions combined for $65.725 million over the life of the deals. “It’s easy to spend money,” said Murray, questioned often about the team’s ability to reach the floor. “You guys just didn’t have faith that Buffalo is a destination, that’s all.”
While Buffalo was a destination Tuesday, the next step is finding out if it can be a winner.
“We have to get a lot better to get away from the bottom,” Murray said. “Does this do it? I don’t know. This changes the mindset is what it changes. I still don’t consider us a contending team by any means. Now the players make think differently, and that’s good. People can get on the bandwagon early or get on late. It really doesn’t matter, but if you want to be more right than you are wrong, I would just say … get on a little earlier than you might have thought because this is serious stuff.”