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Inside the Sabres: Money talks, Russian prospect, captain chatter and hat tricks

As we head into another hockey-free spring, it’s time to clean out the notebook:

*The NHL is a billion-dollar business, so it’s easy to get flippant about numbers. This guy is making “only” $1.5 million. That guy signed for “just” $9 million over four years.

The reality is these are astronomical figures. The players realize that, too. The majority come from blue-collar backgrounds or small towns. Jack Eichel’s parents, for instance, worked in plumbing supplies and nursing.

That’s why Eichel learned the biggest lesson of any Sabre this season. Had he finished in the top 10 in scoring, he would have earned a $2 million bonus. After recording two points in the final six games as Buffalo merely played out the string, Eichel dropped to 11th.  Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl was 10th at .94 points per game, while Eichel finished at .93.

Just like that, $2 million disappeared. It’s no wonder Eichel said he’d like the last six games back. One more point – a scintillating goal or a secondary assist – would have put him at .95. He’d be cashing a check that most of the population could only imagine.

If there was ever proof that every shift matters, that’s it. It’s a brutal lesson for Eichel, but it’s certainly a valuable one for the 20-year-old.

*If Buffalo has an agreement with Russian defenseman Viktor Antipin, it could be a major coup. The 24-year-old is shining in the Kontinental Hockey League playoffs.

Antipin has six goals and 10 points in 17 playoff games for Magnitogorsk Metallurg. Antipin set the record for fastest goal in the Gagarin Cup finals Friday, scoring 27 seconds into the game. Metallurg is in a 3-1 hole heading into Sunday’s must-win meeting with SKA Saint Petersburg.

When asked about Antipin during his season-ending news conference, Tim Murray said only that Antipin is still playing in Russia. Therefore, the general manager couldn’t comment.

Antipin has a history of winning. He’s playing for his third Gagarin Cup and has silver medals for Russia in the world championships and world juniors. He’s 5-foot-11, 179 pounds and a left-handed shot.

The Sabres’ left-handed shots on the blue line this season were Jake McCabe, Josh Gorges, Dmitry Kulikov and Justin Falk.

(Highlights of Antipin are available by clicking here.)

*The idea of Lindy Ruff one day coming back to coach the Sabres is intriguing. Obviously, it’d be a major story. Reporters like major stories.

More than that, the organization could use a shot of history. While Murray and the coaching staff seem to genuinely like Buffalo, there is a sense they’re here because it’s a job. Bylsma wants to win a Stanley Cup because he’s a coach. Ruff wanted to win a Cup because he’s a coach and because Buffalo wanted a Cup.

*It’s time for major arena upgrades to keep pace with the rest of the league.

Imagine incorporating Canalside with KeyBank Center. The Sabres’ offices overlook the bustling waterfront. Maybe they could move their personnel into the building they just bought across the street. That would allow them to blow out walls, put in windows and expand the concourse. They could make better use of the Lexus Club.

Tampa Bay has a large party deck and bar connected to its upper levels, which mixes the outside with the inside. Obviously, it’s warmer in Tampa in February, but doing something similar in Buffalo would give the arena a more open feel and let fans congregate.

A new scoreboard would be nice, too, the monstrous kind that go from blue line to blue line.

*The Sabres’ next captain should be …

Determined at a later date. There’s no obvious, must-sew-on-the-C candidate.

“It just naturally happens, naturally occurs,” captain Brian Gionta said. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that lead, so it’s hard to say who.”

Eichel is the best player, but it says something that the players voted Ryan O’Reilly as their MVP. O’Reilly said his own failings as a leader let the team down. Maybe neither is quite ready. Maybe Kyle Okposo, a steady influence on the ice and in the room, is the choice if healthy.

There shouldn’t be a replacement for Gionta until it’s an obvious one.

*It is absolutely mind-blowing that Buffalo fans went another year without celebrating a hat trick. That's six straight seasons. The Sabres’ last three-goal game at home was April 5, 2011, when Thomas Vanek zapped the Lightning.

Rick Jeanneret shouting, “Here come the hats!” is long, long, long overdue.

*We’ll finish with four media awards.

Robin Lehner gets the “most interesting man to talk to” honor. His honesty and openness on a variety of topics make chats fun and enlightening.

Gionta earns the “true pro” award. After every loss, he sat at his stall and waited for the inquiry. He was the only one to play in all 82 games, so he faced a lot of questions about things that weren’t his fault.

Gorges gets the “man, can he talk” honor. If his next career isn’t in coaching, it should be in motivational speaking.

The “great work” award goes to Chris Bandura, the Sabres’ director of media relations, and his staff. The department has never run better during my 15 seasons covering the team. Looking forward to the 16th.

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