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Sabres need moves to get in the black; Stashing salaries not Regier's only option

Buffalo Sabres President Ted Black was finished with several offseason updates Wednesday morning in the HSBC Arena Harbour Club and it was time to bring $40 million defenseman Christian Ehrhoff to the podium to speak to reporters.

Black wanted Darcy Regier to do those honors and had a wry smile on his face as he turned and looked at his general manager.

Said Black: "With that -- and I love doing this -- I'd like to introduce the GM who currently has the highest payroll in the NHL."

Cracked Regier when he got to the microphone: "Ted cannot resist putting any more pressure on the coaching staff."

Recent offseasons had been largely tumultuous and have produced few smiles. Not anymore.

The Sabres are living in a world far different than at just about any time in their history, a stunning turnaround in the first six months of Terry Pegula's reign as owner.

Thanks to new contracts for some returnees and some previously unheard of strikes in free agency, they are suddenly a big-money team with a bloated payroll.

A Buffalo News analysis shows the Sabres have a salary cap hit of just over $68.4 million for the 2011-12 season -- more than $3.6 million over the NHL's cap of $64.8 million.

Their cap figure is more than $3 million higher than the next biggest spender's: Washington is at about $65.2 million, and nearly $23 million ahead of the NHL's thriftiest bunch, the Colorado Avalanche at $45.4 million.

The Sabres don't have to get below the cap until the season opener and can easily do it by stashing the $5 million-plus combined of Ales Kotalik and Shaone Morrisonn in Rochester, where their figures would not count against it.

The team under former owner Tom Golisano rejected paying NHL salaries to players assigned to the AHL and Regier said that still may be the way the Sabres play their current situation.

"Hopefully that's not the case," Regier said of putting players in the minor leagues. "Hopefully we're able to make some moves to address that prior to the start of the season."

In what's been a wild offseason to date, the Sabres have excised veterans Tim Connolly, Steve Montador, Patrick Lalime, Mike Grier and Rob Niedermayer while adding plenty of big money elsewhere.

Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino were marquee free agents who instantly became two of the team's four highest-paid players for the coming season even though they have reasonable cap hits of $4 million and $4.5 million, respectively. Their long-term deals total $67 million. Robyn Regehr also has a workable cap hit ($4,020,000) over the final two years of his deal after being acquired from Calgary.

The team also handed multiyear deals to returnees Drew Stafford, Nathan Gerbe, Cody McCormick, Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Jhonas Enroth. Stafford (four years, $16 million) and Sekera (four years, $11 million) were the big winners there.

It's been a whole new world for Regier, who had previously worked under tight reins and the dollar-for-dollar trade/free agent budget of Golisano, the former owner.

Last year, for instance, the Sabres were 15th in cap payroll, at about $55.8 million.

"You adjust and sometimes adjusting is tough and sometimes, like right now, adjusting has been OK," Regier said recently. "It's new. If you're going to be successful, you don't do things by yourself. You have good people around you.

"We have good people around us and we end up in a situation now where we have additional resources. And so it becomes take what you know now and put those additional resources to work. That's worth smiling about."

Regier knows about shedding money but this year things are a little different. If the team doesn't jettison Kotalik and Morrisonn, what might it do?

Brad Boyes ($4 million cap hit), Jochen Hecht ($3,525,000) and Paul Gaustad ($2.3 million) are all in the final years of their deals and need to put up good seasons for the team to consider bringing them back. Being in the last year might make them the team's most tradeable commodities as well.

Gaustad would seem to have the best chance at a new deal, as he's a physical presence who is popular in the locker room and is one of the NHL's best faceoff men.

Getting money off the books now is important for this season and for the future.

That's because the Sabres have two marquee restricted free agents on the horizon in Tyler Myers and Tyler Ennis, who are both entering the final years of their entry-level deals.

Myers is making $1.3 million this season and seems headed for a payday in the $6 million range annually. Ennis, coming off a 20-goal, 49-point rookie season, would also be in line for a big raise from the $875,000 he's making.

So if trades are in the offing, who might the Sabres partner with? The first place to look is to teams near the salary cap floor. Four of them -- Colorado, the New York Islanders, Phoenix and Winnipeg -- are still below the NHL-mandated minimum cap payroll of $48.3 million.

There are seven others -- Nashville, Carolina, Florida, Dallas, Ottawa, Anaheim and St. Louis -- who are less than $5 million above the floor and certainly could stand to take on payroll.

The prevailing thought was that the Sabres were in the market for a No. 1 center but they no longer have the payroll flexibility to make that move unless they package a group of players and send them somewhere.

"It's not even money in, money out. It's money out," Regier said of his current trade scenario. "It has to work a certain way for us."

Regier acknowledged that his current roster appears set for now. There has been little activity in the league in recent weeks but that could change when the calendar hits September.

"Right now it's quiet," Regier said. "I think we may see a little bit of activity before training camp. We may see a little during training camp, maybe clubs not being satisfied or for injuries but it's certainly slowed down."

One thing is apparent after this summer: Pegula's Sabres are major players in free agency, now and likely in the future, after years of hardly being involved.

"It's allowed us to look at areas we haven't looked at before," Regier said of the new ownership. "That's unrestricted free agency and at the top end of unrestricted free agency vs. the second or third tier of it. With those resources, it's changed significantly how we've structured the team in the offseason."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com