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Inside the NHL: Sabres’ divisional foes running into trouble

So much time is spent on what the Sabres are doing that we often lose sight on something almost as important: What the opponents are up to. Let’s not forget they’re trying to get better too, and often through some of the same tactics that Tim Murray & Co. are using.

But one of the best things about the Sabres’ rebuild is watching the rest of the Atlantic Division. While Tampa Bay looks like a longterm juggernaut now that it has kept Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, there are bizarre implosions going on all over the division and that only benefits Buffalo.

The Sabres’ potential of quickly moving up the standings may be as much about the goofiness some of their rivals are exhibiting as it is about their own process.

Let’s start in Montreal. There is no excuse – zero, none – for the Habs to have traded P.K. Subban. The rumors were flying about a Subban deal at draft weekend in Buffalo and about 100 of us piled into a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency to hear GM Marc Bergevin say that he was not looking at any deal for his face-of-the-franchise defenseman. And he said it in two languages too!

Next case.

Subban was apparently too big a personality for the staid Montreal franchise that seems to want to live in its past instead of embracing the modern athlete and 21st century hockey world. If there’s jealousy of Subban in the locker room, then get the malcontents out. If there’s jealousy among alums or front office folk for Subban’s spectacular philanthropy, topped by his $10 million donation to Montreal’s Children’s Hospital, it should have been squashed.

If Subban was too offensive-minded for coach Michel Therrien, change coaches. Pittsburgh got rid of Therrien in 2009 and won a Stanley Cup under Dan Bylsma four months later.

Instead, Bergevin sent Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber. And you wonder if the Habs had any scouts watching the Predators-San Jose series, where Weber was an abject disaster. He has been passed on the Nashville blueline by Roman Josi, and now Montreal has a contract that stretches through 2026 when Weber is 40. Good luck with that one. But the party line is that Weber is more defensive oriented and is a better fit for Therrien. Yikes.

Subban, meanwhile, instantly gives the Preds one of the most beastly defense corps in the league. And what a fit he’ll be in Music City. People loved him there on All-Star Weekend, especially when he pulled out the Jaromir Jagr wig during the skills competition. You want a big personality to market in a town that has a hockey atmosphere unlike any in the league? Can’t think of a better place.

Then there’s Bergevin’s stunning admission on Friday’s free agency day: Montreal isn’t a destination anymore. Stamkos, Milan Lucic and David Perron all said no to the Habs. Bergevin ended up adding Alexander Radulov, a problem child from his days in Nashville, and paying big money to Chicago grit guy Andrew Shaw after acquiring him in a draft-day trade.

Said Bergevin: “Today I was aggressive. But some players flat out told me they don’t want to play here, so there was no negotiation.”

I’d fire Bergevin for that one. On the spot. No one wants to play for the Montreal Canadiens? That’s because the GM is running the franchise into the ground. And Sabres fans should be loving that.

Atlantic avenues

Here’s a quick look around the rest of the division:

Tampa Bay: With Stamkos and Hedman in the fold, the Lightning also signed goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to a three-year deal. You wonder when Ben Bishop might be on the move. Stamkos was clearly given assurances that if he took the team’s hometown discount of eight years, $68 million that GM Steve Yzerman would quickly move to lock up other core pieces with the money he saved. Next stop would be Nikita Kucherov. If the Sabres ever plan on getting deep into the playoffs someday, they’ll have to figure out a plan to beat the Lightning.

Toronto: You have to love the way the Leafs look with their cachet of young talent. Like the Sabres, they need more on defense but they’re more set in goal than Buffalo with the addition of Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen. But what was with giving Islanders fourth-liner Matt Martin a four-year deal? Protection for the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander only needs to go so far. I didn’t see any protectors on the Penguins or Sharks. Someone call Lou Lamoriello and tell him the 80s and 90s are over.

Boston: Five years for David Backes after not bothering to trade Loui Eriksson at the deadline and then just watching him walk out the door to Vancouver? What is the plan here?

Florida: The Panthers were quick to lock up Aaron Ekblad with an eight-year extension and they should just about give the kid the ‘C’ right now because it’s his team. Even though they’re becoming a destination for players, you wonder about internal strife. The push and pull is clear as the analytics side got ownership’s ear and forced plenty of changes in the front office, staff and key parts of the team.

The Panthers traded Eric Gudbranson and way overpaid for Keith Yandle, then signed Jason Demers on Saturday for five years and $22.5 million. It’s almost like they panicked after their first-round loss to the Islanders. Memo to everyone in Sunrise: You won the division last season. Did you forget? Five years for James Reimer? Wither Roberto Luongo?

Detroit and Ottawa: They’re stuck in the mud. The Wings didn’t get Stamkos and the Sens are a bit of a mystery under new coach Guy Boucher. You get the feeling they’re going to be passed soon by both the Sabres and Leafs.

Best of GMTM

Murray is always good for a funny quip or two during his meetings with the media and Friday’s was no different when his cell phone rang and he joked it was another player calling about wanting to come to Buffalo. Then he looked down at the phone and said sheepishly, “that IS another one too.” We told him to feel free to take the call in front of us but he declined. Heh.

But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by a couple of much more serious comments from Murray that pretty well capsulize where his attitude is at right now.

1. “We want to get going here. We made up a big chunk last year and everybody says, ‘Well you had no choice’ and I kind of agree with that, to be truthful. But it’s time to take another big jump.”

Translation: Murray has said he’s not patient with long rebuilds and has never wavered from that point. He darn well expects this team in the playoffs this year, and that’s the big jump. It means Bylsma and the players are going to feel a lot more heat than they did last year when things were often still in experimental mode.

2. “I’m about top-end guys. If I can bring in a top-end guy we already have in a certain position, we’ll have to move somebody else out. If the best centerman in the world asks if he can play here or the best defenseman in the world asks if he can play here, I can’t say ‘Oh no, we have this or we have that. Yes, come and play.’ We’ll make it work. Somebody else will have to pay the price. It’s always about quality.’

Translation: Stamkos was going to play center here. Ryan O’Reilly was either going to become a $50 million third-line center or they were going to make it work with him on the wing, which certainly would have been an option. Murray is not going to worry about having too much of anything, given how short this franchise has been just about everywhere in recent years. Remember when Darcy Regier said Derek Roy and Tim Connolly were two of the top 20 centers in the league and that would soften the blow of losing Daniel Briere and Chris Drury? Remember when Cody Hodgson got a six-year contract?

Okposo’s numbers

Kyle Okposo’s contract is like many of the big deals we’ve seen lately: Heavily front-loaded and full of signing bonuses. It makes the deals easier to trade – or buy out – as they get near the end and the Sabres got a well-structured deal in terms of dollars and length at seven years and $42 million.

While the cap hit is consistent at $6 million per season, the actual dollars will vary some.

In the first two seasons, Okposo is making just $1 million in salary and $7 million in signing bonuses. In years 3-4-5, the salary goes to $3 million and the bonuses drop to $3 million. Year six has a $2 million salary and $2 million bonus. In the seventh and final season, 2022-23, Okposo will make $4 million in salary with no bonus. So the total is $25 million in bonuses (essentially the NFL-style guaranteed money) and $17 million in salary.

Okposo has a no-movement clause in the first two years, meaning he must be protected for the expansion draft. Starting with the 2018-19 season, he has a limited no-trade clause for the rest of the deal where he can declare 15 teams that he will not accept a trade too.

The Sabres used the bonus structure even more starkly with O’Reilly’s seven-year, $52.5 million extension that kicks in this season. O’Reilly is getting more than $45 million in bonuses – including $10 million this year – and just $1 million in salary. His cap hit is $7.5 million.

Around the boards

• Three years at $1.6 million for Jake McCabe? Such a solid, under-the-radar signing by the Sabres. Good for the team now, good for the player to make big bucks in 2019. McCabe easily bypassed Mark Pysyk on the depth chart last season and is going to be a rock going forward.

• Did Edmonton really only get Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall? Yes, that move freed up money to sign Lucic but how many GMs would have given the Oilers a lot more than that? Don’t say the Sabres on this one. The word is that a starting point was Rasmus Ristolainen. No chance.

• There are reasons the Oilers are the Oilers and the Blue Jackets are the Blue Jackets. Still can’t fathom Columbus taking Pierre-Luc Dubois at No. 3 and passing on Jesse Puljujärvi, allowing the Finn to fall to Edmonton. As for the Oil, GM Peter Chiarelli has now traded the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the 2010 draft in Hall and Tyler Seguin. Not something he should be proud of.

• No clue what Vancouver is doing as the Sedins age and the Canucks keep tossing money around at odd targets. Remember a few years ago when they paid Dan Hamhuis like he was the next Ray Bourque? The Eriksson deal doesn’t make a lot of sense either. Ryan Miller never could have imagined when he left Buffalo he’d be locked in this kind of mess heading into the last year of his contract at age 35.


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