Tim Murray is not the type to paint a picture of unicorns, rainbows and jujubes just to make someone feel better. Unfortunately, he’s had to do it a couple of times.
When the Sabres gathered at the start of the last two seasons, the general manager told them to get ready for the playoffs.
“I mean, if that’s not coming from the manager and the head coach, then what are the expectations for the players?” Murray said Monday.
When this season started, Murray thought everything – and he means everything – would have to go right for Buffalo to make the playoffs. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Enough did happen, however, to make him hopeful for next year. For the first time in a while, realism and optimism are mingling in First Niagara Center.
“There is a light,” Murray said at his season-ending address. “The goal to make the playoffs, next year it may actually be a realistic goal. That will be our statement to the players that yes, the goal is to reach the playoffs and that we actually do expect that we can do that.”
Murray and coach Dan Bylsma are both buoyed by a strong finish by the Sabres. They played at postseason pace during the second half of the year. While each season is its own entity, at least the Sabres have a base knowledge of what it takes to be successful in the NHL.
“You can’t start next year where you left off,” Bylsma said. “You have to build again. But where we’re starting to build from is going to be a different spot because of the way our players played this year.
“Where we’re going to start next year is significantly higher than where we started this past year.”
Since the season opened, the Sabres have learned that Jack Eichel lives up to the hype. They’ve learned that Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart, who will represent Canada in the world championships, are the real deal. While they don’t know if Robin Lehner can play a full season, they know he’s impressive when he’s in the crease.
Buffalo could still use a game-changing defenseman and scoring, but at least it doesn’t need everything.
“I think we’re in good shape,” Murray said. “We had a huge improvement this year. We have cap space. I do have some GMs that will talk to me and make a trade with me, so that’s a positive. We will be involved in free agency.
“We don’t have to go out and sign a star and three role players because we’re short. We’re not short. I think we’re in good shape. I think our young guys are all going to take a step ahead next year. But we can be active. We can be creative. We can take on a contract in a trade. There are all kinds of options. A lot of teams don’t have all kinds of options, but we’re one of the teams that do.”
Optimism was certainly the overriding theme of the day. Among the other notable topics:
• Murray liked what he saw during the majority of Lehner’s 21 appearances. The goaltender posted a .924 save percentage, which would have ranked fourth in the NHL if he played enough to qualify.
“So 21 games is not enough, but in that period of time he showed me that he has the potential to be what we need, and that’s to be our hardest-working player and make the saves that he’s supposed to make,” Murray said.
• Matt Moulson will not be bought out. The 32-year-old winger, who has three years left on a contract that pays $5 million per season, scored just five goals in the opening 75 games.
“I had a long talk with him,” Murray said. “He knows that he has to work hard this offseason. He’s very disappointed in himself, his own season. It was a tough season for him. It was a tough season for all of us to watch. Hopefully, he can regroup and come back next year and be better. That’s up to him.”
• While there will always be concerns because of the severity of Tyler Ennis’ concussion, Murray believes the forward learned a lot from the injury. The team’s former leading scorer recorded just three goals and eight assists in 23 games before getting hurt in December.
“Maybe this makes him a better player,” Murray said. “Maybe this makes him a harder worker. He said to me, ‘I used to come in to practice and put my skates and pants on and go out there and have fun.’ He knows he has to prepare more before practice. When he hits the ice, practice with a purpose and practice seriously. He’s come to these conclusions through this injury and watching our team play from the sidelines. This may make him a better, more serious hockey player, and we hope so.”
• Neither the Sabres nor the agent for Rasmus Ristolainen have contacted each other. The 21-year-old defenseman will be a restricted free agent this summer. Once the sides begin talking, Murray will have a better idea of whether to work out a short- or long-term contract.
• Buffalo is in the running for college free agent Drake Caggiula. The 21-year-old left winger, who has attended the Sabres’ development camp, led North Dakota to the NCAA title with 25 goals and 51 points in 39 games. The Sabres are at 48 contracts, two shy of the NHL maximum, so they have room to sign Caggiula.
“We will talk to him and his agent in the next couple days,” Murray said. “He’s got a plan. He’s eliminated a bunch of teams, and we’re still there. I can’t say we’re going to get him or not get him.”
• Cody McCormick, who has been out since January 2015 because of blood clots, will never play again. The 32-year-old forward has one season left on a three-year contract that averages $1.5 million. He can be placed on long-term injured reserve, which doesn’t count against the salary cap, or the sides can work out an injury settlement.
“Cody McCormick is not going to jeopardize his life or his family by trying to play again,” Murray said, “and we support him in that.”