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Top priority for Murray, Sabres is finding a starting goalie

Taking Jack Eichel with his first pick is the easy part. What Sabres General Manager Tim Murray does with the rest of his time at next week’s NHL Draft in Sunrise, Fla., is what could really shape his team, both in the short term and long term.

And it’s going to start in net. The Sabres have only one NHL goaltender under contract in Chad Johnson, but he injured his ankle in March and never played a game for the team.

“The basic plan is we have to get a goalie, that’s for sure,” Murray said at the team’s annual pre-draft news conference in First Niagara Center. “It’s a moving plan. The plan always moves. We would love to trade for a ‘youngish’ goalie. If that doesn’t work, we would trade for a real good short-term goalie who is older. If we could sign the best or second-best free agent goalie, we would be happy with that too. We’re working it every day.”

Names the Sabres could be looking at include New York Rangers backup Cam Talbot or Los Angeles backup Martin Jones, although the Kings are saying they will re-sign the restricted free agent. Other options are in Ottawa, with 23-year-old Robin Lehner and perhaps 34-year-old Craig Anderson available. Murray said he needs to trade for a No. 1 to pair with Johnson, and a No. 1 to play in Rochester.

Senators General Manager Bryan Murray, Tim Murray’s uncle, said during a similar meeting with Ottawa reporters Thursday that he’s open for business in goal.

“People have been going team to team and have been seeing what the price is to get a goaltender,” Bryan Murray said. “All I’ve said to each one of them is, ‘If you want the best one, you better call Ottawa because we have the best guy to trade’ and I sincerely believe that.”

The Senators reportedly want a top-six forward and a draft pick for a goalie, and the Ottawa Sun said Thursday they may want to package forward Colin Greening or David Legwand as part of the deal as well.

As for free agent goalies, the list of potential starters is relatively thin. The top names would likely be San Jose’s Antti Niemi, Calgary’s Karri Ramo or former Sabre Michal Neuvirth of the New York Islanders.

Tim Murray said he plans to work other teams prior to the draft, at next week’s general managers meetings in Las Vegas and at the draft itself for immediate help. The Sabres are likely searching for a veteran winger and another veteran defenseman and could dangle the No. 21 overall pick in that quest.

“There’s potential,” he said. “There’s a lot of teams jammed up based on the cap not going to $74 million or where they projected it to go. There’s going to be a lot of talk. Will be there be action? I don’t know about that.”

Regardless of who they acquire, Tim Murray said to also expect the Sabres to draft a goalie next week. They’re certainly going to be interested in 6-foot-4 Russian Ilya Samsonov, and could potentially use No. 21 on him. Samsonov is signed to play for the next three years in the KHL in Russia, but the Sabres could snag his rights.

“Goalies are a little more of a wild-card than a forward or defenseman,” Murray said. “I think you should throw a dart on a goalie every draft.”

Murray said the Sabres are pondering a buyout of forward Cody Hodgson, a move they have until June 30 to make, and went into depth on the status of restricted free agent Mikhail Grigorenko. The Sabres want to sign him to his qualifying offer and make it a two-way deal that would allow them to send Girgorenko to Rochester. Grigorenko, who has six goals and 14 points in 68 NHL games, and agent Jay Grossman want a one-way, NHL-only deal. A move to the KHL is also possible.

“Their expectations of a contract are a little different than ours,” Murray said. “They feel he’s NHL ready. We feel he needs time in the minors, whether it’s 10 games, half a year. That depends on what kind of summer he has.”

The Sabres would have to put Grigorenko on waivers to get him to Rochester, and it seems likely another team would take a chance on a former No. 12 overall pick who turned 21 last month. Grossman politely declined to comment on the negotiations when reached Thursday by The News.

“I don’t know why they’d be afraid of a two-way contract. I’m baffled actually,” Murray said. “If we think he needs more time and we have to put him on waivers but he is what he thinks he is, he’s in the NHL in my opinion. He’s just not in Buffalo.”

Murray said he’s starting to work the process for hiring a replacement of Chadd Cassidy as the head coach of the Amerks.

“Development is important,” he said. “I want a guy that’s strong, a guy that understands that you can teach and win at the same time. A lot of guys feel that they’re either teachers or winners and they want a veteran team. I think you can do both. ... I like coaches that blow the whistle. When there’s a mistake made, you have to blow the whistle and correct it and start again.

I’m confident we can develop there and win there. ... I hate losing down there. I want to develop players. I want to win hockey games.”

As for Eichel, Murray said he had no further thoughts on the decision by college hockey’s best player to turn pro or stay at Boston University. It’s likely Eichel will have already made that decision by the time he hits town for the July 6 opening of the Sabres’ annual development camp.

A smiling Murray said he understands that Eichel, as a teenager, is going to wait until he actually hears his name called at the draft before seriously focusing on the decision.

“You guys are grizzled veterans and cynical and so am I,” Murray joked with reporters. “He’s not. He’s still wide-eyed and different things can happen – which they’re not going to. You guys have to give him a little bit of a break and let him enjoy this moment because it’s only going to happen once. I have full faith that he’ll make the right decision, whatever that may be.”

email mharrington@buffnews.com

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