BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) - The Sabres retained the rights to forward Thomas Vanek by issuing a qualifying offer to their leading goal-scorer.
It will take more than a one-year, US$942,000 deal - the offer matching Vanek's salary last season - to keep him playing in Buffalo. The move, announced by Vanek's agent, Stephen Bartlett, on Tuesday, is considered only the first step for the Sabres, who are expected to attempt negotiating a long-term contract with Vanek to prevent other teams from luring him away.
Under NHL rules, teams are allowed to make offers to restricted free agents. And it's expected Vanek will attract his share after finishing fifth in the league with 43 goals and 19th with 84 points in only his second season.
The Sabres have the right to match an offer. Should they refuse, they'll be entitled to draft picks as compensation.
It's unclear how much Buffalo is willing to spend on Vanek because the team is handcuffed by the salary cap, which is projected to increase to about $49 million. The Sabres, who operated at the $44 million cap last year, also have more immediate concerns in determining whether they can re-sign co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, who are both eligible to become unrestricted free agents July 1.
Bartlett said he's not had contact with Sabres general manager Darcy Regier, but understands that the team is busy dealing with more immediate concerns.
"It doesn't surprise me," Bartlett said. "If I was in his shoes, I'd probably deal with the unrestricteds first."
Bartlett wouldn't speculate on whether other teams would make attempts to sign Vanek next month. Speaking generally, he said the NHL's two-year-old salary cap system makes it easier for teams to lose restricted free agents because they're unable to match offers.
Regier was not available for comment. Last week, Regier said he planned to contact Bartlett about a new deal, but cautioned he wasn't going to break the Sabres' budget.
"I'm not a believer in operating out of fear," Regier said. "He's a very important player. There's a market value, and you have to stay the course. ... I think we'll be fine with Thomas at the end of the day."
Regier is attempting to keep intact the core of a team that won the Presidents' Trophy last season, and reached and lost the Eastern Conference finals for a second straight year.
Representatives for both Drury and Briere said they've had some discussions - but nothing substantive - with the Sabres. Both players are coming off career-high seasons and projected to command $6 million-plus contracts.
Buffalo has yet to contact forward Dainius Zubrus, another potential unrestricted free agent. A 10-year veteran, he made $1.85 million in the final year of his contract last season.
Zubrus' agent, Jerrold Colton, said his client is open to returning to Buffalo after the team acquired him in a trade with Washington in February.
"I wouldn't rule out reaching out to them, but if they're interested, they know where to find me," Colton said. "(Zubrus) feels this is a team ready to take the next step and would love to be a part of it."