Tim Murray is ready to apologize to his scouting staff again. That means it will be a busy and interesting week in Buffalo.
The Sabres’ general manager blew up his scouts’ hard work last year by trading away two first-round picks and the No. 31 overall selection. He knew the countless hours the staff had put in analyzing and ranking the prospects, so he told them he was sorry.
“We’ll be doing that again,” Murray said Tuesday.
Buffalo holds 11 picks in the 2016 NHL Draft, including the No. 8 selection. Murray has no plans to select that many players Friday and Saturday in First Niagara Center.
“If we can trade a couple picks and improve our team, we’re going to continue to do that,” Murray said at a predraft news conference. “There’s been a lot of calls. There’s been a lot of framework or blueprints. It’s who you get back to or who gets back to you.
“You have to feel there’s a mutual fit. The guys who are calling me are calling 28 other guys, and I’m doing likewise. It’s who you get back to and who you zero in on because you had a good feel on the first call or first two calls. We’re not there yet, but we’re close.”
Greg Royce, the Sabres’ director of amateur scouting, will have no problem sitting at the draft table and watching other teams use his picks.
“If we trade the picks to make the team better, that’s just the way it goes,” Royce said.
Just like at the end-of-season news conference, Murray was very specific in detailing his need for a defenseman.
“If somebody offers us a top-end, young, left-shot D and they demand our eighth overall pick and we feel it makes us better, we’ll do the trade,” he said. “We need somebody to play the left side. Whether that’s a left shot or a right shot, that’s yet to be seen.”
Anaheim’s Cam Fowler, a 24-year-old who has 34 goals and 178 points in 414 NHL games, seems to best fit the category among players on the rumor mill. But GMs aren’t just milling around, so more names are out there. The relatively flat salary cap (the NHL announced a rise of $1.6 million to $73 million) and a looming expansion draft next June should increase the pool.
“There are teams that have to move guys or eventually will have to move guys,” Murray said, “so you’re going to hear some names that maybe you wouldn’t have normally heard in the past.”
Murray will spend much of Wednesday with his scouts finalizing the draft rankings. After that, it’s back to the trade market and preparing for free agency. Teams can talk with pending free agents next week and offer contracts July 1.
Murray made a big move Monday by sending a third-round pick to Nashville for the rights to left wing Jimmy Vesey. Representatives for college hockey’s best player have said Vesey plans to test free agency when he becomes eligible Aug. 15 rather than sign a contract.
“I would have expected that would have been their answer,” Murray said. “They haven’t sat down and talked to us, so for me it’s like a college free agent recruiting process. We haven’t begun our recruiting yet.
“It’s a gamble. He can sign with somebody else on Aug. 15, but it was a third-round pick and we can debate the value of third-round picks. Between 30 percent and 10 percent of them play.”
Murray will have recruitment help in the form of Jack Eichel. The center is great friends with Vesey, and they’re teammates in a Massachusetts summer league.
“We might potentially use Jack as a tool,” Murray said. “I guess I’d be a tool not to.”
In other news:
• Murray denied a TSN report that the Sabres are prepared to offer pending free agent Steven Stamkos a contract worth up to $12 million per season.
“We have not even discussed an offer, so I don’t know where the rumors are coming from,” Murray said. “Everybody knows that whoever does go after him is going to be spending a lot of money, but we haven’t really discussed a firm offer internally.”
• Coach Dan Bylsma is close to filling at least one of the two assistant coach openings on his staff.
• The GM talked for the second time Monday with the agent for pending restricted free agent Rasmus Ristolainen. Murray has also had conversations with RFAs Zemgus Girgensons and Jake McCabe. He has not begun talks with Marcus Foligno.