The Buffalo Sabres are looking forward. The team's season may have ended with a disappointing loss in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Carolina Hurricanes, but general manager Darcy Regier's season is just heating up.
Free agency is looming less than a month away and Regier knows full well what that could mean for a young Sabres team, which was just 20 minutes short of a date with Lord Stanley's Cup.
"Today is all about the future," said Regier during a press conference on Monday. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us."
The majority of the roster is comprised of restricted free and only four players who played more than 20 games this season are looking at a chance to enter the free agent pool during the summer. Three of the four are on the blueline.
Jay McKee, Teppo Numminen and Rory Fitzpatrick make up the possible deportees among Buffalo's defensemen, while Mike Grier is the lone unrestricted forward.
Defensemen Doug Janik - first NHL goal came against Carolina in Game Seven - and David Cullen, along with Chris Taylor are also unrestricted free agents, but none of the three saw action with the Sabres during the regular season.
"Any time someone has earned the right to become an unrestricted free agent, they ultimately make the choice as to where they want to play," Regier said. "But it's our goal to keep this group together as much as we can."
Since the beginning of the season, Buffalo's focus on a team-first mentality has never changed. Regier stated during his press conference this off-season would be simply about continuing down that same road, whether it's with the current group of players or a slightly different bunch.
"Almost in (every player meeting on Saturday), the guys felt that they would like to see this team stay together," said Regier. "I liked Lindy (Ruff's) advice to them. He said, 'Well, that's easy just take your qualifying offer.'"
With 25 restricted free agents, Regier will walk a delicate line between rewarding individuals and keeping the team intact. Regier began the 2005-06 season with a payroll range between $27 million and $29 million and admitted on Monday that the team may have slightly exceeded the ceiling.
But after the Sabres' success this season not only in the standings but also on the profit and loss statement, he anticipates that payroll to increase. The salary cap for 2006-07 is also expected to increase to somewhere in the vicinity of $43 million to $46 million, with the amount dependant on a vote from the Players Association.
"It will get bumped up," Regier said of his payroll. "The question is going to be where we end up. We'll probably start talking about it today."
With a year of experience under the new CBA, will NHL general managers become more frugal in their off-season spending as compared to 2005? Regier doesn't think so.
After wisely avoiding last summer's spending spree, Regier is expecting to apply the same plan to the coming months.
"I don't think it will be any different from last year," said Regier. "With the cap going to $45 million or $46 million depending on what the union decides, you are going to see not just money but a lot of long term contracts by some clubs.
"I don't see why a change would come this summer."
The first shot in this summer's bidding wars was fired when reports came out of Toronto by the Canadian Press that the Leafs had resigned Bryan McCabe to a five-year deal worth somewhere between $5.5 million and $6.0 million per year. Both the amount and term of McCabe's alleged deal are more substantial than any player's contract on Buffalo's current roster.
"We have distinguished ourselves differently from other teams and will continue to do that," Regier said. "Down the lines of hoping to keep McKee, Numminen and others here, if that works out you won't see many changes. If it doesn't, we will have a couple."
Restricted Free Agents Maxim Afinogenov Martin Biron Daniel Briere Brian Campbell Tim Connolly JP Dumont Paul Gaustad Jeff Jillson Dmitri Kalinin Ales Kotalik Michael Leighton Toni Lydman Adam Mair Sean McMorrow Ryan Miller Jiri Novotny Nathan Paetsch Daniel Paille Andrew Peters Jason Pominville Taylor Pyatt Michael Ryan Derek Roy Henrik Tallinder Chris Thorburn
Unrestricted Free Agents David Cullen Rory Fitzpatrick Mike Grier Doug Janik Jay McKee Teppo Numminen Chris Taylor