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Mike Harrington’s Inside the NHL: Murray still looking to maneuver

Mike Harrington

More than 200 players will be drafted this weekend and the Sabres will likely snag at least eight or nine of them after making a couple of deals. And aside from the first-round pick – assuming that stays at No. 8 – whatever baby-faced kids get a new Buffalo sweater won’t matter much for a couple of years because they won’t see the NHL right away.

Still, this is the biggest draft meeting yet of General Manager Tim Murray’s tenure. He’s reeled in some big fish the last couple of years in Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel but he didn’t have to be some sort of hockey savant to do that. Getting Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and Robin Lehner took quite a bit more chicanery, and the results have been only middling to this point.

That said, those kinds of players are helping the Sabres build a solid core. You just saw the Pittsburgh Penguins win a Stanley Cup with a solid, four-line team with six defensemen, and that’s what every team aspires to do. The Sabres are clearly improving but they’re a long way away from being a Stanley Cup team. It’s Murray’s mandate to get them closer in the next couple of weeks.

Murray was asked here Tuesday if he feels pressure to make more big splashes this weekend. He joked he never used to feel any external heat until reading glowing media accounts of his moves.

But turning serious, he pointed out that, “At some point we have to be happy with our top six and top four. I’m not sure we’re there yet completely. The needs have been vast. At some point, you guys are going to write, ‘Tim is pretty happy with his team and we don’t foresee a blockbuster deal.’ I hope I get there someday.”

Murray has a lot of draft picks he can parlay and still has some young talent to work with, although it’s clear he doesn’t want to give up much of it simply to move to the No. 4 slot. It’s time to get more NHL players.

The quest for a left-shot defenseman seems to start with Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, who has long been rumored to be an apple of Murray’s eye, much like O’Reilly was for about a year. Fowler, 24, is signed for the next two years at $4 million per season and has averaged 32 points over the last three seasons for the Ducks. He gets a bucket of ice time and would seem to make the partner that Rasmus Ristolainen needs.

Reading tea leaves on Tuesday, you would think Murray might be willing to part with his No. 8 pick if Fowler was a return. Murray also said he’d try to get back into the first round and the Ducks have Nos. 24 and 30. You wonder what else Murray would have to include to make that kind of deal work, say a Zemgus Girgensons-type player as opposed to a prospect.

(If you chart the Sabres top three lines right now, there’s no fit for Girgensons if you assume a free agent goes on the wing with Eichel and Reinhart while putting Tyler Ennis with O’Reilly and Kane and keeping the third line of Marcus Foligno, Johan Larsson and Brian Gionta intact).

The Sabres and Boston are among several teams also believed to be interested in St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who is likely to be dealt in the wake of Colton Parayko’s emergence. You wonder how much Buffalo will be kicking some tires on Rangers winger Rick Nash, although his tires seemed to lose a lot of air last season as he dropped from 42 goals to just 15.

Aside from the Kane trade, which was rumored for a couple of hours before it actually went down, Murray has always been amazingly stealth with his moves. He started with Monday’s acquisition of the rights to Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey.

Giving up a third-round pick is no gamble, especially for a guy of Vesey’s stature. That’s assuming the Sabres get him signed. Vesey, who can’t put his name on a contract with Buffalo until July 1 anyway, is going to gauge his options carefully. He’s got a lot of leverage in terms of where he wants to go.

Playing with friend and summer-league teammate Eichel obviously is attractive to Vesey, but he’s likely to watch what transpires some in free agency as well. Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room: What happens with Steven Stamkos?

If the Tampa Bay captain lands in Buffalo or Toronto, does that tip the scales on Vesey’s decision to sign with one of those two teams? Who else is offering Vesey a top-six spot alongside two studs like Eichel and Sam Reinhart? The other things Murray does this weekend could go a long way to getting Vesey’s signature on a contract long before his Aug. 15 free agency date.

The Stamkos dilemma

The free-agent interview period starts Saturday and word is the Sabres want to be as close to the front of the line with Stamkos as they are with Vesey. And it’s a word that extends all the way up to owner Terry Pegula. The chatter at the Stanley Cup final was that the Sabres’ ballpark could be seven years and $77 million, and TSN said this week the figure might be $12 million a year.

Murray denied there’s been any internal discussion of an offer. Whether that’s true or not, those are the kind of numbers we’re talking about. And that’s a huge risk, Stamkos’ blood clot issues aside.

The Sabres are going to have to pay Ristolainen this summer − probably at least five years for $5-$6 million per − and are only a couple years away from having to pay Eichel and Reinhart as well. O’Reilly at present is the highest-paid player in franchise history. Even though the Sabres currently have about $23 million in cap space for next year with the newly announced $73 million ceiling, that money will go fast.

Stamkos and Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper have not seen eye to eye at times because of the captain’s desire to play center. Is he playing center here with Eichel and O’Reilly having locked the top two spots? Doesn’t Stamkos simply slide on to Eichel’s wing? But does he want to do that?

The biggest issue here, of course, is if Stamkos is simply looking to cash the big paycheck or go home to Toronto. He’s closest to the Stanley Cup if he stays in Tampa but the Lightning will be hard-pressed to go much past their reported $8.5 million annual offer. The Leafs and Sabres aren’t close to a Cup yet but accelerate the path with Stamkos tremendously. You wonder how involved Detroit gets if the Wings can offload Pavel Datsyuk’s salary on a team needing to get to the cap floor, like Arizona.

And there’s this point on Stamkos: He must have watched what LeBron James did this week in finally bringing a title to his beloved hometown. If James is The King in Cleveland, Stamkos would own Toronto forever if he brought the Leafs’ first Stanley Cup since 1967? That was clearly a pull when Mike Babcock chose Toronto last year over the Sabres. The scenario could repeat on July 1.

Quick hits

Alex Goligoski: Arizona traded for his rights with Dallas and quickly signed him to a five-year deal for roughly $27.3 million. A nice get for the Coyotes and a big loss for Lindy Ruff’s crew. Potential big loss for the Sabres too. He would have looked nice alongside Ristolainen.

Milan Lucic: The burly winger has made it clear he wants to stay in Los Angeles but there’s no deal with the Kings at this point. A lot of chatter about a move to Edmonton come July 1, and don’t forget what a big year this is for the Oilers. They need to add defensemen and they need to add some character players to help them finally win in their first year in Rogers Place.

Keith Yandle: Another possible Sabres target appears headed for Florida after the Panthers got his rights from the New York Rangers.

Brian Campbell: A Yandle signing means the end for the former Sabre in Sunrise. Would he come back here on a two-year deal to be a leader for the kids? It would be more likely he’d return to a place like Chicago to get another chance at a Cup, but can the Hawks squeeze him in under the cap?

Kyle Okposo: He’s going to free agency after Islanders GM Garth Snow wished him well this week. Could be a nice backup option for the Sabres − at about half Stamkos’ salary. But he’ll have plenty of teams interested.

Marc-Andre Fleury: It seems unlikely he stays in Pittsburgh with the likely need to protect Matt Murray in the expansion draft. All signs point to Calgary, which is desperate for a starting goaltender.

Pickup issues

Eichel is playing in a summer league back home in suburban Boston much like Patrick Kane has played in the Fattey League in the past in HarborCenter. Girgensons plays in the Fattey as well. It’s pickup hockey with little contact but you still wonder about elite NHL players getting involved in games like that with Average Joes. You would think teams would be awfully wary about it, to the point of maybe even writing it into guys’ contracts.

Murray told this corner on Tuesday he has the kind of trepidation you’d expect but that hockey is a little different in that area too.

“I don’t think there’s a need for it,” Murray said. “What are they getting out of it? … Is Patty Kane playing in the Fattey League for recreation and for fun and to get back to his roots and play with some buddies and make them good look with a great pass so they can dangle? That’s their level. Everybody has a different reason for playing shinny or industrial league or whatever you want to call it.

“I just hope they’re not playing at 100 percent, but I know you can get hurt in the weight room, you can get hurt walking across the street. Skill guys love to be on the ice because they think that even with a practice or a shinny game they’re improving their skill set, improving their hands and shot. If that’s the basis for it, then that’s fine.”