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Murray, Sabres hoping for a huge catch in Stamkos

Mike Harrington

The Big Fish.

Tim Murray wasn’t talking directly about Steven Stamkos when he used that term Saturday afternoon, but everyone with a media badge around their neck surrounding the Sabres’ general manager in First Niagara Center knew damn well who he was talking about.

The Sabres got better and tougher on the blueline in the morning with the trade acquisition of Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov – even as analytics hounds howl over the departure of their beloved Mark Pysyk. They drafted several more fresh-faced kids for days down the road, including the feel-good selection of local product Austin Osmanski.

But the proceedings downtown Saturday simply don’t match up to what could go down in the next few days, an epochal stretch of free agency in the history of the franchise and the NHL.

Superstar centers simply don’t hit the free-agent market like this. Probably not since Daniel Briere nine years ago. As wondrous as he was, no one is ever going to say the former Buffalo co-captain is in the Stamkos class. This is a 60-goal scorer, a four-time 40-goal scorer. This is a franchise changer the likes of which this team has not had since Pat LaFontaine.

“The best player available at any position, I’m going to listen to,” Murray said. “We have holes but we’re going to chase the big fish. As we get close on them or let down by them, then we’ll change direction.”

“The number of times I’ve been asked about Steven Stamkos on the golf course this spring, at charity tournaments and different things with people screaming out the window, ‘Stamkos,’” added coach Dan Bylsma, interrupting his thought to shake his head. “I always ask them, ‘What should we sign him for? How much should we offer him?’ There is a lot of buzz about that but, frankly, it’s a lot of talk and a lot of rumors at this point in time.”

The chatter is going to reach a crescendo this week. Teams can reach out to Stamkos’ representatives and the 26-year-old – who already has 312 NHL goals – can sign as of Friday at noon.

If Stamkos wants to win, his best chance at that remains in Tampa. The Lightning were two wins away from a Stanley Cup last year and one win away from returning to the final last month – with Stamkos missing virtually the entire playoffs due to his blood clot issue.

But it seems unlikely the Lightning will go much past $9 million per year for him. They don’t seem interested in riding the elevator to the penthouse of the NHL salary scale, at a time when it seems the Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs certainly do.

The Sabres and Leafs both look ready to go to outrageous levels, perhaps $11-12 million a year on a seven-year deal, to lure Stamkos. It would be the highest annual haul in league history, topping the $10.5 million Chicago is giving Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. That’s a huge risk, given Stamkos’ clots. In a couple of years, it could be an albatross contract the likes of which no one has ever seen, sentencing this summer’s “winner” to cap jail long before their accomplishments on the ice merit.

Murray said he has not officially reached out to Newport Sports Management, the suburban Toronto agency that handles Stamkos’ affairs, to express his interest. But that’s likely to happen as soon as Sunday.

“You have to find out if there’s interest from their side. That’s the big thing,” Murray said. “I think there’s a lot of free agents today that have an inkling on where they want to go. … It’s a feeling-out process. If there’s mutual interest, then you get deeper into it.”

Even though Stamkos is from the Toronto suburb of Markham and Buffalo might be roughly 2½ hours from there, the growing favorite in all this seems to be Detroit in the wake of the Wings shedding Pavel Datsyuk’s $7.5 million cap hit Friday night in their trade with Arizona. Detroit, of course, has gone to the playoffs for 25 straight years. The Wings aren’t selling hope like the Leafs and Sabres are.

“I assume on a player like that, the teams that have cap space that can fit him in will all be involved in this,” Murray said. “It’s going to be a stiff competition, I’m sure. You’ve got to show them your blueprint. He’s certainly going to look at your roster I’m sure.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of equals as far as money. There won’t be a lot of equals as far as geography. The one thing that can put a team over the top is teammates, who he gets to play with and who he doesn’t get to play with.”

In the background on Stamkos Watch is the fact the Sabres now own the rights to Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey and have until Aug. 15 to sign him, too. Bylsma, remember, coached Vesey at the World Championships 13 months ago in the Czech Republic, when the coach was still unemployed and Jack Eichel was more than a month away from being drafted.

“You salivate a litte bit with the possibility of adding a top-six winger to your team,” Bylsma said of Vesey. “We thought we were in the mix come Aug. 15 regardless but I thought it was a great move to get his rights to show him how much we want him to come.”

Tampa GM Steve Yzerman and Stamkos’ reps have stayed largely silent on the star’s contract most of the season but Yzerman seems to be resigned to losing his captain unless Stamkos has a sudden change of heart.

“I have no control over what other teams do. It’s all part of the business,” Yzerman said here after the draft concluded. “We all have decisions to make, players have a right to make their own decisions and I don’t judge anybody on that.”

Bylsma offered a Cheshire sly smile when asked about his dream line combinations and made it pretty clear he has the charts in his office with spots available for the likes of Stamkos (No. 91 in Tampa) and Vesey (No. 19 at Harvard). At last year’s draft in Florida, Bylsma talked about how he was already making line combinations for what was then his new team. We can do it here for the best-case scenario new look of the Sabres.

So for starters, how about Kane (9)-Stamkos (91)-O’Reilly (90), followed by Vesey (19)-Eichel-Reinhart? Dare to dream indeed.

“Yeah, it would be real interesting to slide those two guys in there to see how you could arrange it,” Bylsma said. “Who goes where? It’s going to be a lot of nines and ones and nines and zeroes. Looks pretty exciting.”