Share this article

print logo

Sabres in the thick of free-agent frenzy

Tim Murray has been a popular man for agents. The Sabres’ general manager finds out today if he’s popular with players, too.

The NHL’s free agent frenzy begins at noon, and hundreds of millions of dollars are just waiting to be spent. Buffalo needs to shell out $20 million just to reach the salary cap floor, so the Sabres will be active.

Last-place Buffalo is hardly a destination for anyone chasing Stanley Cup glory, but Murray is surprised how many agents have contacted him during the past week to discuss having their clients sign with the Sabres. Now he learns whether they were just kicking tires, using the Sabres as contract leverage, or legitimately interested in having the players come to town.

“Certain players see opportunity,” Murray said Monday. “They see the rebuild happening, and they see that we’re going to add two or three good young players to our team every year for the next three or four years. I think that’s attractive to certain free agents.

“There’s been a lot of interest. Is it legit interest? I’m not sure. We’ll find out.”

Murray’s main targets are aging, still-productive players who are willing to mentor the Sabres’ stable of prospects.

“I’d like to acquire a couple veteran guys that can play the game but can also show our kids how to be pros, how to play properly, how to look after yourself,” the GM said in First Niagara Center. “On our free agent list there’s quite a few that fit our need for character, for leadership and all that stuff.”

The list includes former Sabres players Steve Ott and Matt Moulson, plus Montreal’s Brian Gionta. More importantly, all three list Buffalo as a possible destination, according to various sources.

Gionta is from Rochester, and the 35-year-old could be persuaded to close his career near home. He is finishing a five-year, $25 million deal. He had 18 goals and 40 points in 81 games this season, and he added six assists and seven points in 17 playoff games.

Gionta’s agent, Steve Bartlett, was scheduled to speak one more time with Montreal on Monday night.

Moulson has had “serious interest” shown from six teams. He was keeping his options open and remained interested in returning.

Other players who fit the leadership role Buffalo is seeking include forwards David Legwand, Brendan Morrow and Milan Michalek, and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Anton Volchenkov. Murray has also said Buffalo will attract fourth-line guys who want to prove they can be scorers, and Brian Boyle falls into that category.

Unless it’s a special circumstance, the players shouldn’t expect more than a one- or two-year contract offer.

“I don’t want to get too tied up in term because I think there are a lot of unknowns going forward here,” Murray said. “When I say unknowns, I mean young kids. Are they ready at 20, 21 or 22? When a kid’s ready, I don’t want him blocked by somebody else.”

Forward Cory Conacher and defenseman Jamie McBain won’t be in position to block anyone. Murray declined to extend qualifying offers to them and goaltender Connor Knapp. The restricted free agent group that was qualified includes Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Chad Ruhwedel, Luke Adam and Matt Hackett.

Conacher’s homecoming was a short one. The Sabres claimed the former Canisius College star off waivers from Ottawa in March. The 24-year-old relished the chance to recapture his game in Buffalo, but he foundered with only three goals and six points in 19 games.

Conacher’s qualifying offer would have cost the Sabres $874,125. He is now an unrestricted free agent. The other members of the Sabres’ UFA class include Christian Ehrhoff, Henrik Tallinder, John Scott, Ville Leino, Zenon Konopka, Matt D’Agostini and Kevin Porter.

Most teams have money to spend because the salary cap has risen from $64.3 million to $69 million. The cap floor will be $51 million, a jump of $7 million.

Despite Buffalo’s lack of big contracts – the Sabres have only $31 million committed to next season – Murray remains steadfast in his belief that getting to the floor will not be a problem.

“There’s the possibility of a couple of pretty good free agents that are going to make pretty good money,” said Murray, who outlined an additional money-spending scenario via trades. “What’s going to happen, I believe, is you have teams that are near the top of the cap. If a free agent comes knocking on their door and is a very good player, they have a hard time saying no. Their plan will be deal with it after that.

“The contending teams now are going to be contending for the top free agents. Somebody’s going to get them, and they’re going to have to move lesser players. That’s one way to do it.”

The contract frenzy will give fans in the United States their first look at the NHL’s big free agent signing. The league’s 12-year, $5 billion deal with Rogers Communications kicks in today. NHL Network will simulcast Sportsnet’s live coverage beginning at 11 a.m., which kicks erstwhile mainstay TSN off the American airwaves.

Viewers are all but certain to see and hear from the Sabres.

“I think that we’re on the right track,” Murray said. “There will be bumps in the road, but there’s a right way and a wrong way, and I think we’re doing it mostly right.”