BUFFALO, N.Y. - The days of the Buffalo Sabres all-too-familiar, cost-conscious, conservative approach to free agency just might be over.
Backed by an enthusiastic new owner with deep pockets and a desire to win, general manager Darcy Regier said Monday he has the green light to be in the thick of the bidding once the NHL's free agency period starts Friday.
"It's both different and exciting," Regier said. "In the past, it was largely about trades and drafting and developing your own players. So a third area has been opened up on the unrestricted side where we can compete for the best, top unrestricted free agent."
The Sabres' key needs are adding a top-line centre and a veteran defenceman to a Ryan Miller-led team that was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the second straight season. The building process has already begun after Buffalo acquired veteran defenceman Robyn Regehr — and the US$8 million he still has left on his contract over the next two years — in a trade with Calgary last weekend.
The change in approach is directly the result of Terry Pegula, the Pennsylvania billionaire and longtime Sabres fan who purchased the team in February.
"Win now is the focal point. And as Terry said, it's not just win now, it's win often," Regier said, referring to his marching orders. "We hope to be active. We'll certainly be making calls, inquiries, making offers. ... Knowing that we have the ability to compete for those players with other teams is tremendous."
That's a 180-degree turn in philosophy for Regier. He was previously handcuffed in his ability to go after high-priced free agents, and also limited in re-signing the team's own stars.
Last summer, the Sabres were outbid in losing two key defenceman, Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman, in free agency. Then there was the summer of 2007, when Buffalo's core was dealt a severe blow in failing to re-sign co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere.
As for adding talent, the Sabres' free agent track record mostly involved targeting midlevel players and journeymen, or acquiring players in trades in order to free up salary.
This year's crop of free agents is comparatively smaller to previous summers.
Among the top players expected to be available are forwards Brad Richards, Brooks Laich, Ville Leino and Simon Gagne, and defencemen Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski and Ed Jovanoski.
The Sabres have already locked up their top potential free agent after re-signing forward Drew Stafford to a $16-million, four-year contract earlier this month. Regier said he's had talks to re-sign centre Tim Connolly and gritty forward Cody McCormick.
The Sabres have tendered offers to retain the rights to their top restricted free agents: backup goalie Jhonas Enroth, forward Nathan Gerbe and defenceman Andrej Sekera. Once those players are re-signed, it's projected that the Sabres will have about $8 million of space left under the $64.3-million NHL salary cap.
Regier cautioned he won't be spending to the cap simply because he has the OK to do so.
"Anyone we sign will be because we believe they can help us win a championship here," he said.
Pegula's influence has already been evident.
Joined by his wife, Kim, and coach Lindy Ruff, Pegula boarded a plane to meet directly with Regehr to convince the player to waive his no-trade clause in order to spur the trade. In February, shortly after completing his purchase of the team, Pegula approved a deal in which the Sabres acquired forward Brad Boyes, who is set to make $4 million this season.
Regier believes the moves the Sabres have made under Pegula have begun to change the team's once frugal reputation around the NHL.
"It is changing," Regier said. "I think that people quickly become aware of the ownership's desire and intent to win a Stanley Cup. And it's not just the statement, it's the actions."