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With new contract in hand, Murray enters toughest stretch as Sabres GM

Always secure in his own shoes, Tim Murray was plenty secure in his role of Sabres general manager entering the last year of his contract. Good thing. Seemingly out of nowhere, the SS Sabre is taking on a ton of water and we've played exactly one game of the season.

The team announced a multiyear contract extension for Murray early Thursday night, giving him the chance to push forward with the rebuild that started infamously via back-to-back 30th place finishes that produced Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel as No. 2 overall picks.

But the season opener against Montreal was played without the injured Eichel, Kyle Okposo and Dmitry Kulikov. Late in the second period, Evander Kane went down in a heap with a boom into the boards that echoed throughout KeyBank Center, potentially damaging his ribs and other innards. Something tells me Buffalo's top-line left wing and its best down-low forward isn't seeing the ice for a while, just like its franchise center.

"We're missing some big pieces but there's no excuses," Murray said during a press-box meeting with reporters during the first intermission. "The guys that are on the ice, they want to win. They're not sitting there going, 'Well, we have to wait for these guys to get back.' They want to win. I'm going to continue to judge these players every day and then act accordingly."

The Eichel injury, obviously, puts a crimp on the entire season. For fans trying to be optimistic, Murray verbalized the first concrete timeline we've heard: He's working on the assumption that it's going to be 6-8 weeks before his star can come back.

"Jack going down is a tough loss for sure. I want to see how it goes here," Murray said. "Jack is not a replaceable player. We've got to try this internally. I'll use all the cliches if you want but it's opportunity for somebody else.

"We know somebody else is not going to come in and be Jack so we've got to be a real team here. We've got to tighten up defensively, get good goaltending . ... We've got guys here who have played center in the past. We'll try some guys here and see how it goes. If it's clearly not going to work, then I've got to get on the phone and make some calls."

So the recap looks like this: The No. 1 center (Eichel) is out long term, the No. 1 left winger (Kane) might be joining him. The No. 2 center (Ryan O'Reilly) has back trouble and is limited from taking faceoffs. The top free agent signee (Okposo) and the top trade acquisition (Kulikov) are also out but you'd think they're close to returning.

Not how you draw things up over the summer. Not how you draw them when training camp starts. And the next four games are on the road starting Sunday in Edmonton, where Connor McDavid awaits an already-bedraggled opponent. Yikes.

"It will be a good week to find our game," captain Brian Gionta said of the sojourn to Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. "We'll get together and hopefully kind of settle things down after the last week or so."

Owner Terry Pegula turned this ship solely over to Murray to steer when Pat LaFontaine was shown the door 2 1/2 years ago. The next few weeks likely rate as the biggest challenge of Murray's tenure.

"I've felt secure, felt great here. They've been very supportive," Murray said of Pegula and his wife, Kim. "I can't think of one time I've gone to them with an idea that they said no or even questioned. You're going into your last year, I guess it's a vote of confidence when you can get a deal done and don't have to wait."

Murray was happy to seal the deal with Rasmus Ristolainen on Tuesday, with a six-year, $32.4-million contract getting the team's top defenseman in the fold just before the opener after a long summer of talks with agent Mike Liut. A key signing at a very team-friendly rate of $5.4 million per season when chatter was Ristolainen was looking north of $6 million.

That's the game within the game. As for the game itself, Murray had to hate the first period Thursday. Gionta and coach Dan Bylsma both accurately said the Sabres were jittery with the puck and there had to be some carryover from what everyone saw as Eichel crumpled to the ice late in Wednesday's practice.

The final 40 minutes were better in spurts but the Sabres were about as advertised: They have plenty of issues on defense and still have to get a read on how good Robin Lehner is going to be in goal.

With all these injuries, the offense is going to be sickly. It was hard for the fans to create much opening night buzz when the the only sighting of Eichel was in a suit and on a scooter waving during introductions from the dressing room tunnel.

"It's a big loss but at no point is it catastrophic to this team," Gionta insisted. "We've got enough talent to carry us through. This is to test us early to find what we're made of and have guys come into some roles to step up into holes."

Well, I'll call 6-8 weeks without Eichel catastrophic. Murray admitted it was disheartening but is plowing ahead.

"You make changes in the offseason and a lot of them are based on him and our young guys," Murray said. "We can't sit here and wait for four weeks to come and think it's all going to get better. We have to prepare. You know me. Glass half-empty. Prepare long term and anything better than that is a bonus."



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