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Stamkos' return to Lightning was blessing to Sabres

Bucky Gleason

It’s crazy how this business works sometimes. Eight minutes after I finished a column Wednesday afternoon saying the Sabres shouldn’t pay ridiculous money to Steven Stamkos, news broke about the Lightning center accepting the deal Tampa Bay offered him going into the trade deadline.

Stamkos must have drawn the same conclusion others did before diving into free agency with a $12 million anchor dangled around his neck. He was dreaming if he was banking on getting that much loot from another team when the doors to Stupid Season flew open Friday.

Let me be clear: Stamkos did Buffalo a favor by taking himself off the market before the Sabres had a chance to make a major mistake. The last thing they needed was one grossly overpaid player mucking up their salary structure. He would have accounted for 13 percent of their maximum payroll and 60 percent of their current cap room.

It was absurd.

How much were the Sabres actually willing to spend? It was never clear, but they reportedly were prepared to make him the richest player in NHL history. Last week, he supposedly was looking for $12 million before taking $8.5 million to remain in Tampa Bay and avoiding state income tax. The Bolts had it right all along.

Kick back and rejoice, Sabres fans. Breathe a sigh of relief and take comfort knowing Buffalo sidestepped the damage his contract could have caused if Terry and Kim Pegula or Tim Murray had a weak moment and caved to his demands. Stamkos wouldn’t have led them to a Stanley Cup. He would have prevented one. His decision to return to Tampa Bay was a blessing to Buffalo.

Look at the bright side, you know, like me.

For years, going back to the pre-Pegula days in which the Sabres actually made the playoffs, Buffalo often was viewed as a destination of last resort. Unrestricted free agents arrived after they exhausted all other options. The Sabres had a reputation for being a cheap team in a hockey wasteland.

Terry Pegula altered the thinking five years ago when he started throwing around big money. He became a civic backbone. He increased investor confidence and led the renaissance downtown. Buffalo always was a passionate football and hockey town despite repeated failures, but he provided reasons to give the region an extended look.

Long a team that stood with their hands in pockets while envying others with fatter wallets, the Sabres were in position to chase the best player available Wednesday. They could afford the biggest contract in league history. That, alone, was a victory. Now that Stamkos is gone, Buffalo can resume building a respectable team.

Finally, the Sabres have the ability to hold meaningful conversations with agents for top players from a position of strength. Murray can provide evidence that the organization is headed in the right direction. He can present a genuine sales pitch without getting laughed off the phone.

He can get back to the goal.

What’s the goal?

On the day he purchased the franchise, Pegula claimed the goal was winning multiple Stanley Cups. It’s easy to look back and disregard his comments in February 2011 as happy talk from a rookie owner. But to me, Pegula had the right idea when he boldly stood up and announced his intentions.

Fast forward through the two-plus years Pegula wasted before concluding what the majority knew, that major changes were needed at the top. Never mind your stance on whether losing was a sound strategy for winning. Get past the misery that came with finishing last two straight seasons and not getting the first pick overall.

What’s left is a team trying to recover from past mistakes and advance toward the goal, assuming that winning a title remains the primary objective.

Too often, fans hear big names in hockey – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews – and believe superstars were the only reason their teams won the Cup. Take a closer look, and you’ll find third and fourth lines and third defense pairings often making the difference in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh won the Cup largely because it exploited advantages on the third line with Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel. The HBK Line made $12.7 million combined last season, or $700,000 more than Stamkos wanted for himself. Crosby made $8.7 million while Malkin pocketed $9.5 million.

Championship teams are built through depth across four lines, three defense pairings and goaltending. Overpaying one player, in this case Stamkos, would have led to compromising positions in other areas. Teams can be successful to a certain point with one player throwing off payroll, but rarely do they win the whole thing.

Stamkos is a great player, but he wasn’t worth $9 million let alone $12 million. You know how many times he led his own team in scoring in eight NHL seasons? Three. Plus, he was sidelined with blood clots that required surgery. But there were other factors that needed to be taken into consideration.

Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart make only $925,000 in salary, but Buffalo must account for $2.8 million in bonuses for Eichel and $2.65 million in bonuses for Reinhart. Rasmus Ristolainen is going to make big money. Newcomer Dmitry Kulikov is making $4.3 million and will command more dough after next season.

Bigger contracts are ahead.

Rather than buck up $12 million per season for Stamkos, the Sabres can spend more money across the roster and building a stronger, deeper and more balanced team. The Sabres are in better shape leading into free agency this year than they were in year in recent memory. They can thank Stamkos for the flexibility.

Murray’s strength is making decisions with his head and not his heart, a quality has served the franchise well. Now that Stamkos is off the market, he can target players who better fit his team. He still has plenty of money at his disposal for the likes of Kyle Okposo and Andrew Ladd. It costs considerably less to overpay them.

It’s nice having dollars. It’s better to have sense.


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