The Buffalo Sabres were a mess June 30, 2014.
They had a roster that was only two-thirds filled. It was severely lacking in talent. They needed to spend $20 million just to get the salary cap floor, but it wasn’t clear how many players wanted to skate for a team with its eyes on 30th place.
On June 30, 2015, the mess was a memory.
As the NHL enters the opening day of free agency Wednesday, the transformation of the Sabres in one year is one of the league’s remarkable stories. Buffalo has an additional $22 million in payroll, most of it top-end talent. If Sabres don’t spend a dime during the NHL’s shopping spree, they’d still have a competitive roster.
Of course, what fun is July 1 without spending money?
The Sabres head to the annual swap meet with three items on their agenda. One is to sign newly acquired Ryan O’Reilly to a contract extension. He is entering the final season of a two-year, $12 million deal, and the Sabres want to lock up the 24-year-old long term.
Another objective is to sign Jack Eichel. The time may be perfect for the No 2 overall pick to announce he’s going to the NHL.
Buffalo also could use a top-four defenseman, specifically a left-handed shot to play with either Zach Bogosian or Rasmus Ristolainen. The only lefties on the roster are Josh Gorges and Mike Weber.
The Sabres have options. The list of free-agent defensemen includes Chicago’s Johnny Oduya, Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin, Los Angeles’ Andrej Sekera and Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin. The players, who could command $5 million per season, are among the highlights of an underwhelming class.
“Every year I look at the free agent list and I get less and less enthused,” Sabres General Manager Tim Murray said. “I have talked to agents about certain guys that are high on our list.”
With an overflowing corps of forwards, the Sabres could also be active in trades. Buffalo has 14 centers and wingers ready to compete for spots.
Tampa Bay is the team closest to the cap with an overabundance of left-shot defensemen (Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn and Mattias Ohlund), but the organization may be loathe to trade inside the division. Winnipeg also has four lefties (Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart, Grant Clitsome and Jay Harrison).
No matter which defenseman the Sabres get, the amazing part is that’s all they need.
A year ago, the Sabres had just 10 forwards (including No. 1 pick Sam Reinhart) and four blue-liners. The lone position they didn’t need to fill was goaltender, where Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth were scheduled to compete for the No. 1 job.
The only defenseman making more than $1.67 million was Tyler Myers. Cody Hodgson topped the payroll among forwards with an average salary of $4.25 million. Chris Stewart ($4.15 million) and Drew Stafford ($4 million) were right behind. The total salary was $34.7 million.
Aside from Reinhart, everyone named in the previous two paragraphs is gone, with Hodgson clearing waivers Tuesday to enable his buyout. Torrey Mitchell has also departed, along with Brian Flynn, Patrick Kaleta and Nikita Zadorov.
In their place are scoring-line forwards and minute-hogging defensemen. In addition to O’Reilly and Eichel, the Sabres enter the 2015-16 calendar year with Evander Kane, Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta, David Legwand, Jamie McGinn and Cody McCormick up front. Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges have joined the defense. The net will be patrolled by Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson.
The Sabres are set to shell out at least $56.4 million for 22 players. They’re already past the floor of $52.8 million and are $15 million under the cap.
Buffalo has had big changes off the ice, too, with Dan Bylsma replacing Ted Nolan as coach.
The team may have to hand out name tags on the opening day of training camp, but that’s a minor inconvenience compared to the uncertainty of last season.
“It’s a new coaching staff,” Murray said. “There’s a lot of new players. There’s going to be a lot of meshing and jelling that has to go on here. I have full confidence in our coaching staff that they have the experience and the energy to make that happen.”