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Sabres sign five on first day of free agency

by Joe Yerdon

BUFFALO -- After a weekend at the 2014 NHL Draft that had the Buffalo Sabres feeling good about the future, the team made a splash on the first day of free agency by acquiring five players Tuesday.

Sabres general manager Tim Murray signed unrestricted free agent forwards Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick, and defenseman Andrej Meszaros.

Buffalo also acquired defenseman Josh Gorges from the Montreal Canadiens in a trade for a second-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and re-signed restricted free agent forward Marcus Foligno.

A veteran group joining what was a very young team at the end of the 2014 season should help ease any concerns about leadership heading into next season.

"We're more competitive," Murray said. "We've got a lot of character now. We have leadership now. That's important to me when you're adding young players every year. There's a short term and a long term. The long-term is that your young players get better. Your young players become pros. They're not just good players, they're good NHL players, and I think that this group of people that we've added today can help in that regard."

The Sabres traded their captain, Steve Ott, to the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 28. With Gionta signed to a three-year contract, Gorges acquired from the Canadiens, and Moulson back with the team, the Sabres have veterans to support young players, including the 2014 No. 2 pick, center Sam Reinhart.

"It's going to make it easier for him, for sure," Murray said of Reinhart. "It's going to allow him to play his game a little more. It's going to allow him to not look over his shoulder so often. I think it gives him a comfort level that if he does come into camp prepared, that he's got people around him to help him. And if he makes the team and he plays great out of the gate and all that; we know he's going to hit rough patches. We know he's going to hit speed bumps, and that's what these guys are here for. Besides playing, they're here to help our guys get over those rough patches, and we're going to have them."

Gionta grew up in nearby Rochester, N.Y., and was captain of the Canadiens from 2010 through 2014, a fact that wasn't ignored by the Sabres.

"Yesterday he was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a storied franchise, a playoff team," Murray said. "That wasn't a token title, that was real. There is stuff in this game that's real and stuff that's not real, and that's real stuff. That's legendary stuff and he's now a Buffalo Sabre."

Gorges was an alternate captain with the Canadiens under Gionta. His role in helping lead a crew of young Sabres defensemen -- Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk, and Nikita Zadorov -- makes him a vital addition.

"He's heart and soul. He plays to the most of his ability and the most of an effort level every shift," Murray said. "He blocks shots, he's the type of player that can wear a letter, he's definitely part of the leadership group. He brings a lot of intangibles."

Gorges didn't have to play the role of mentor on the Canadiens with older defensemen around. Now he's the oldest member of the Sabres blue line at 29 years old.

"I think my job is to go in there and play the way I've always played," Gorges said. "I have to compete, I have to battle to do everything I can. At the same time, I want to be a leader on the team with a lot of good, young players and try to help out any way that I can. If guys have questions, or even just being a role model by how I compete and how I prepare myself, that's what I want to do. I want to do anything I can to help that team win."

The Sabres brought back Moulson and McCormick, who they sent to the Minnesota Wild at the NHL Trade Deadline. Moulson signed a five-year, $25 million contract to return to Buffalo. With each player having previous, and recent, experience with the Sabres, it made them important signings for the big picture.

"I think our kids are sitting at home going, 'Wow,'" Murray said. "They know these players. They watch the National Hockey League. They know the quality of the player, they know the quality of the person, they know the character. This is as excited as they are to get drafted by Buffalo in the last couple years. They know it's a team that is not there. We can say it's a team on the rise … people have to see that. I just think there's some kids at home going, 'This is great.'"

The Sabres' signings on the first day of free agency may have caught fans and those around the League off-guard, but it's the first step in the process of establishing Buffalo as a location players will want to come to, but the team doesn't want to start thinking too big, too fast.

"We have to get a lot better to get away from the bottom," Murray said. "Does this do it? I don't know. This changes the mindset is what it changes. I still don't consider us a contending team by any means. Now the players may think differently, and that's good, but we have a lot of work to do and today was one day."

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