This offseason may be one of the most important in Tim Murray’s career. When he first took the general manager position for the Buffalo Sabres, the initial path was as clear as the water at a tropical resort – do whatever is necessary to finish last and draft Connor McDavid.
His two-pronged directive didn’t pan out exactly as planned, but thanks to Murray’s efforts, the Sabres were able to procure one heck of a hockey player in Jack Eichel.
En route to Eichel, Murray was able to pick up impact players like Evander Kane and all-star center Ryan O’Reilly. His careful planning turned Sam Reinhart from an 18-year-old fourth liner into a confident, substantial presence in front of the opposition’s net.
Despite all of this, Buffalo still finished out of the playoff race, which means they have some work to do. They are several pieces shy of being a legitimate contender for the Cup.
The 2016 unrestricted free agent list is loaded with top line talent – legitimate superstars who are consistent difference makers in games. The problem with these incredibly skilled players is that they will be expensive. Most of them are on the unrestricted market for the first time and will be expecting big money for their services.
This will be Murray’s biggest challenge: to resist chasing the big name and sacrificing the future of the team.
The Blackhawks are hemorrhaging players right now because they’re running into salary cap issues, and Murray needs to avoid repeating the Blackhawks’ mistakes. In a few short years, Murray will likely be doling out contracts to key players like Eichel, Reinhart, Kane, and Jake McCabe, among others.
With over $7 million a season tied to O’Reilly, it’s going to take a huge jump in the salary cap, which is unlikely, or a sizeable hometown discount from the players, which is equally unlikely, for Murray to be able to pay all of these players.
Though somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it is frequently mentioned that the Sabres should chase down the biggest fish in free agency, Steven Stamkos.
While it is undeniable that Stamkos is among the elite in terms of NHL players, it makes almost no sense for Buffalo to make any real attempt to sign him. His current cap hit of $7.5 would make him the highest paid Sabre, and there is no way that Stamkos won’t be seeking a substantial increase in pay.
Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane draw a cap hit of $10.5 million each from Chicago, and it is reasonable to expect Stamkos to sign for something in that neighborhood. That contract is going to be the equal of two, possibly three of the Sabres listed above, making it illogical for Murray to approach Stamkos this offseason.
Another name that has been bandied about for the Sabres is Bruins forward Loui Eriksson. Eriksson had a fantastic contract year, putting up a career-high 63 points on an underperforming Bruins team. His current cap hit of $4.25 million is more than reasonable for Boston’s second-leading scorer, but Eriksson is going to demand at least $6 million a season, but could get offers for more.
While $6 million is not immediately crippling to the Sabres, who have some cap space to play with, but again, in two to three years it’s going to make Murray’s job a lot more difficult.
The Sabres are set up with a dozen draft picks, so a trade is always an option, of course. Buffalo also has a fairly deep prospect pool to entice any potential trade partners.
However, history suggests it’s likely that if someone wants to trade with the Sabres, Murray’ll to have to give up one of his current players. Only one season into the rebuild, he may not be prepared to deal any of these keystones, so it’s more likely he will be looking to make a splash on the free agent market.
Let’s hope it doesn’t leave the Sabres all wet.