LEWISTON, N.Y (AP) -The Buffalo Sabres rewarded Paul Gaustad for his hard-hitting style, re-signing the blue-collar center to a four-year, $9.2 million contract on Monday.
Gaustad, a restricted free agent, had his rights retained by the Sabres last week when they made him a minimum-salary qualifying offer.
The Sabres, though, had targeted Gaustad as a core player last spring and had expressed their intention to lock him up to a long-term deal.
The third-year player, Buffalo's seventh-round draft pick in 2000, is a versatile forward who split time between the Sabres top three lines. Gaustad produced career highs with 10 goals (including two game-winners), 26 assists and 36 points in 82 games.
"I'm excited about where this team is headed, and I've really come to love playing in Buffalo," he said by telephone from his home in Portland, Ore.
The deal was reached over the weekend after Gaustad's West Coast-based agent, Carlos Sosa, held negotiations in Buffalo. And the contract marks a significant raise for a player who made $750,000 last season and who was once knocked for his poor skating ability.
"It's something where you take a step back and look at where I came from and how I got there. I'm very proud to have this contract," added Gaustad, who said he's fully recovered from surgery he had in May to repair a sports hernia. "It's something where I never really thought I'd make it in the NHL, and now I have a contract like this."
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said the team moved quickly to sign Gaustad because of his leadership abilities and to prevent teams from extending the player an offer sheet, which Buffalo would be forced into the position to match.
"The focus was on him being somebody that we felt was really important to the team in order to move forward," Regier said. "He is someone who we expect to take a leadership role with this team from the standpoint as an example for younger players and his peers."
The Sabres announced the signing prior to the start of the NHL's free agency period, which opens Tuesday.
Earlier Monday, Regier revealed the team had opened contract talks with Ryan Miller in a bid to sign the star goaltender to a lucrative long-term deal this summer, well before he can become an unrestricted free agent after next season.
Gaustad's signing and the talks with Miller are a clear indication of the team's commitment to build from within rather than through free agency.
The developments are a clear sign of the proactive approach the Sabres are taking this offseason after being faulted for waiting too long to lock up co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Buffalo lost both players in free agency a year ago, and their departures were blamed for the team missing the playoffs this past season after the Sabres had reached the Eastern Conference finals in each of their previous two years.
Miller is scheduled to make $3.5 million in the final year of his contract this season. Under NHL rules, the Sabres are allowed to speak to the player, but prevented from signing him to a new deal until Tuesday.
"It's too early to say, but any time we have any conversation in that area, it's always good," Regier said, characterizing the discussions, after the team's rookie training camp session at Niagara University.
It's expected that Miller is seeking a long-term deal in the range of the six-year, $41.25 million deal New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist signed in February.
Miller completed his third full season with the Sabres and had an up-and-down year. He had difficulty with the load of appearing in a franchise-record 76 games, and finished with a 36-27-10 record, four wins short of matching the Sabres' mark he set last year. His 2.64 goals-against average was eight points lower than his career average.