Sabres General Manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma met with the media Monday afternoon for the final time this season, covering a wide-range of topics from their offseason plans to their expectations for next season. Here are some of the highlights:
ON PURSUING COLLEGE FREE AGENTS
Murray was asked about the potential for the team to pursue forwards Drake Caggiula, an undrafted free agent from the University of North Dakota, and Jimmy Vesey, the 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner from Harvard University.
While he couldn’t comment on Vesey, who was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 2012 and remains under their control until Aug. 15, Murray left the door open to potentially sign Caggiula and any other college free agent he sees fit.
"I have interest in every good player," Murray said. "I can't talk about Nashville's player; he belongs to Nashville. We do have interest in Caggiula and we will talk to him and his agent in the next couple of days. He's got a plan and he's eliminated a bunch of teams and we're still there so I can't say were going to get him or not get him."
Caggiula was a part of Buffalo's 2014 summer Development Camp.
The question was also posed as to how Jack Eichel – last year's Hobey Baker recipient – might serve as a recruiter for college players, and Murray said that ability might extend to offensive players in general.
"I think Jack is a recruit because he's a dynamic, young center who could possibly be the best player or in the conversation for best player in this League in the next couple years," he said. "If I'm a winger, if I'm looking around the League, that's one guy that I definitely want to play with."
ON CHAD JOHNSON'S FUTURE
Murray said at the Trade Deadline that he would have interest in retaining goalie Chad Johnson, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer after appearing in 45 games for the Sabres this season.
The GM backed that sentiment on Monday, but added that it would have to make sense for both sides. Johnson expressed his hope to serve as a starting goaltender next season if the opportunity presents itself.
"I can't speak for other teams but it only takes one desperate hockey club that believes that he's a starting goalie based on what he did this past season and then the money is not equal because our vision of him is different," Murray said. "But money being equal, everything else being equal, I thought he was tremendous."
Cody McCormick has not played since Jan. 9, 2015 due to blood clots. The 32-year-old center has one more year on his contract and has spent this season working out with injured players at First Niagara Center.
"Cody McCormick is not going to jeopardize his life or his family by trying to play again and we support him in that," Murray said. "He was around this winter and did some things when other players were rehabbing. I don’t know if that's become a future thing or not but it was just something that he dabbled at and seemed to like."
Murray also said that minor vision problems from the upper-body injury that defenseman Cody Franson sustained on Feb. 19 were what kept him from returning to game action, but added that he is close to recovering. Franson has one year remaining on his deal two-year deal with Buffalo.
ON EXPECTATIONS FOR NEXT SEASON
While he didn’t begin this season with the mindset that playoffs were completely out of the question, Murray admitted that he believed everything would have needed to go right for the Sabres to have made the postseason this year after bringing in a new coach staff and a cast of new players.
Next year, he said, those expectations will change.
"I've said to you guys a lot that we just want to improve every year and I think we have done that to a pretty good degree. And, again, the goal to make the playoffs next year, it may actually be a realistic goal," Murray said. "So that will be our statement to the players that, yes, our goals is to make the playoffs and we actually do expect that we can do that."
When asked where he'd like to see the team improve toward reaching that goal, Murray pointed to having an established starting goaltender – which he believes is Robin Lehner – be healthy for the entire season and, in a perfect world, possibly adding a mobile defenseman who can carry the puck.
"If I can't do that – and this goes to Dan – we have some really top-end forwards, I believe, and I think they're capable of playing in that position," Murray said. "We have a couple young defensemen who are very good on the power play. So we'll make do if we can't do that but that would be like a Christmas gift, absolutely, [by adding] a quarterback [defenseman]."
ON CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS WITH RASMUS RISTOLAINEN
Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is a pending restricted free agent this summer, but Murray said the team has not yet spoken to his representatives about a new contract. What kind of deal they'd arrange – whether it would be a bridge deal to unrestricted free agency or a long-term contract – depends on a variety of factors.
With Eichel and fellow rookie Sam Reinhart still on entry-level deals, for example, Murray said signing Ristolainen to a bridge deal could be a sufficient way to leave more cap room to sign other pieces if he believes the team can be a contender within the next two years.
"Obviously we're going to talk at some point. Once we find out their expectation, that'll help us decide on long-term or bridge," Murray said. "If we can be real contender next year and the following year and they're on entry-level deals, maybe a bridge deal is better for us to keep it down and we might be able to add a big-time player short term. We've talked about it a lot but we haven’t come to a decision."