Next season’s Buffalo Sabres could look very different

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It seemed like the Buffalo Sabres’ organization received a surge of excitement from the moment new owner Terry Pegula took over. The team was in a dire situation months before that happened, especially when Derek Roy went down with a knee injury that ended his season (save for a single appearance in Game 7 of the team’s first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers).

The Sabres made a spirited run toward the playoffs, narrowly outlasting teams such as the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs for one of the final two spots. They made the aggressive (if questionable) move to acquire Brad Boyes during the trade deadline and generally seem willing to spend the money to go from a solid, playoff-ready team to a genuine contender in the East.

This prompts two important questions: is GM Darcy Regier smart enough to make the right moves and will head coach Lindy Ruff be able to guide that roster once it is completed?

No doubt about it, the Sabres have a lot of questions to answer this off-season. That could be a really good thing (the team should have $15.6-$18.6 million to work with if they plan on spending to the cap ceiling) or a bad one (they have 13 players under contract, with 7-10 spots to fill) depending on the decisions Regier makes.

For the sake of this exercise, we’ll just look at the players who could become unrestricted or restricted free agents come July 1.

Forwards

Tim Connolly (unrestricted, previously made $4.5 million) – Going into the stretch run, it seemed like Buffalo’s “Mr Glass” would be an obvious goner. Through his first 47 games, he scored just 26 points. Yet he seemed to get things together in March, scoring 16 points in his last 21 games. Finishing the 2010-11 season strongly (and an encouraging 65 points in 78 games in 09-10) might make him tougher to dismiss in Buffalo if he’s willing to take a pay-cut and short-term deal.

Nathan Gerbe (restricted, previously made $850 K) – In my mind’s eye, I tend to mix up Gerbe and Tyler Ennis with disturbing frequency. Maybe it’s the fact they’re both short in stature; perhaps it’s their unusual numbers (Gerbe wears 42; Ennis sports 63). Either way, they’re both undersized players who can provide some magic to the team’s forward mix. Buffalo will have to pony up a moderate raise for Gerbe this summer and a more significant one for Ennis in 2012.

Rob Niedermayer (unrestricted, $1.25 million); Mike Grier (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – These are two aging veterans who make marginal impacts in the regular season until their rugged play, hockey intelligence and experience helps more in the playoffs. The Sabres might be wise to offer them two-way contracts at this point in their careers.

Other unrestricted free agent forwards:

Matt Ellis (625K)
Mark Parrish (600K)
Mark Mancari (575K)
Cody McCormick (500K)

Backup goalie

Jhonas Enroth (restricted, $867K); Patrick Lalime (unrestricted, 650K) – Do the Sabres have their much-needed backup for all-world goalie Ryan Miller in Enroth? They certainly don’t in Lalime, who was basically a second goalie coach toward the end of the 2010-11 season. Enroth didn’t receive a ton of opportunities to prove himself one way or the other, but he did save the Sabres season, so maybe a modest backup deal for two years is in order.

Defensemen

Marc-Andre Gragnani (restricted, $500K) – After scoring three points in only nine regular season games, Gragnani was a difference-maker in the playoffs, putting up an outstanding seven points in seven contests. He might not be the offensive defenseman they’ve been dying for, but he could be a solid depth option and stopgap solution. The question is: how much will that hot run cost the Sabres?

Andrej Sekera (restricted, $1 million); Steve Montador (unrestricted, $1.5 million) – Neither of these defensemen are “world-beaters,” but they received around 20 minutes per game at affordable clips. Sekera has far more promise than Montador from a long-term perspective, but both of their negotiations will come down to price.

Mike Weber (restricted, $550K); Chris Butler (restricted, $850 K) – Again, these are two defensemen who are expendable but might be retained if their asking prices are modest. Like Sekera, they own the advantage of being younger since they’re all 24 years old.

***

As you can see, the Sabres have a lot of decisions to make, but there aren’t a ton of make-or-break questions to answer (not after signing Drew Stafford to a contract extension, at least). Signing Gerbe, Enroth and Gragnani will likely require the toughest negotiations while the other players require judgment calls.

It’s not crazy to wonder if the team might make a big pitch for Brad Richards considering their copious amounts of cap space and limited options to improve their biggest weaknesses on defense. Either way, we’ll keep you informed as the Pegula era truly beings in Buffalo this summer.

The Buzzer: McDavid dominates; Fleury’s unlucky return

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Player Of The Night: Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers have at least started to show some signs of life in recent games. They were shutout on Sunday night in Toronto, but sandwiched around that game were a convincing 6-2 win in Montreal and then a thoroughly dominating 7-2 win in Columbus on Tuesday night that left Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella completely speechless.

Leading the way for the Oilers was captain Connor McDavid as he went off with a four-point night.

The four points are a season high for him and the fifth time this season he has recorded at least three points.

That performance gives him 39 points in 31 games on the season and currently has him third in the NHL scoring race, three points behind Tampa Bay Lightning teammates Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

Marc-Andre Fleury Probably Deserved Better In His Return To The Lineup

Marc-Andre Fleury made is return to the Vegas Golden Knights net and looked great, stopping 35 of the 37 shots he faced. Unfortunately that was not enough to get Vegas a win as they fell in a shootout to the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2.

One of those two shots in regulation that beat him? It was this.

That is unfortunate.

Still, that is another point for Vegas as they continue their push for a playoff spot in the Western Conference during their inaugural season in the NHL.

Highlight Of The Night

The Philadelphia Flyers were 4-2 winners over the Toronto Maple Leafs and have now, suddenly, won four games in a row following a 10-game losing streak.

They picked up the winner on Tuesday thanks to this goal that featured a crazy between-the-legs pass.

Highlight Of The Night Part Two

Now let us take a look at Johnny Gaudreau from the Calgary Flames. This came in a losing effort in the shootout but this is still a slick move. Maybe illegal? Either way, it counted.

Factoid(s) Of The Night

— By stopping all 32 shots he faced against the St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy picked up his 20th win of the season. He is just the sixth goalie in NHL history to win at least 20 games within his first 25 starts of a season. [NHL Public Relations]

Matt Cullen scored his 250th career goal in the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 shootout win over the Calgary Flames, making him the 29th American-born player in NHL history to reach that mark. [Minnesota Wild PR]

— Carolina Hurricanes goalies Cam Ward recorded his 300th career win on Tuesday night in their 3-2 shootout win over the Vegas Golden Knights. He is the fifth active goaltender to reach that mark. [NHL Public Relations]

Scores

Buffalo Sabres 3, Ottawa Senators 2

New Jersey Devils 5, Los Angeles Kings 1

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Toronto Maple Leafs 2

Washington Capitals 5, Colorado Avalanche 2

Edmonton Oilers 7, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, St. Louis Blues 0

Minnesota Wild 2, Calgary Flames 1

Chicago Blackhawks 3, Florida Panthers 2

Carolina Hurricanes 3, Vegas Golden Knights 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Vasilevskiy shines again as Lightning take top spot in NHL

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Tuesday’s game in St. Louis was a showdown featuring the top two teams in the NHL.

In the end it was the Lightning picking up the 3-0 win to extend their current winning streak to five games and to reclaim sole possession of the No. 1 spot in the NHL.

Their win improves them to 22-6-2 on the season and puts them two points ahead of the Blues despite having played two fewer games.

It was another impressive showing for Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who has been one of the underrated stars of this year’s Lightning team. Most of the attention has been directed to forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov (and deservedly so!) but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Vasilevskiy, in his first full season as the Lighting’s full-time starter, has been one of the best goalies in the league so far.

Tuesday’s game was his third shutout of the season, and after his 32-save performance against the Blues his .933 save percentage is among the best in the NHL, while his 20 wins (in only 25 starts) are tops in the league. Nobody else in the league has more than 17.

While Vasilevskiy was shining in net again, Kucherov scored his 21st goal of the season to move back into a tie with Alex Ovechkin for the top spot in the league. It was also his 42nd point which moved him into a tie with Stamkos for the league lead.

Brayden Point also continued his breakout season by opening the scoring with his 13th goal of the season. He also added an assist on Tyler Johnson‘s third period goal.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

John Tortorella had no time for questions after blowout loss (Video)

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Since being hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets John Tortorella has seemed to be a kinder, gentler coach.

The blow ups and battles with the media don’t seem to happen as much. We don’t get as many rants.

He just does not seem as angry all the time.

Losing 7-2 at home to the Edmonton Oilers, however, might change a few things.

That it was happened to the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night and Tortorella was in no mood to answer question about the game.

His press conference consisted of him stepping to the podium, saying there is no point in answering questions about the game, then leaving.

Here it is in all of its glory.

The only question we have: Is this shorter than the night he said the New York Rangers “sucked from head to toe?”

(Oddly enough, that game was also against the Edmonton Oilers).

That press conference lasted, roughly, 14 seconds from the time he started talking until the time he walked away (and also included the line “I know you have a job to do”).

Tonight’s comes in at just around 12 seconds. So we might have a record for the shortest John Tortorella press conference of all time.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski dies at 49

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CALGARY, Alberta (AP) Former NHL defenseman Zarley Zalapski has died at age 49, according to the Calgary Flames. No cause of death was given.

Zalapski, a native of Edmonton, played 637 NHL games for Calgary, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Montreal and Philadelphia from 1987 to 2000.

He was with the Flames from 1993 to 1998.

“We are proud that Zarley wore the Flames jersey, made Calgary his home following his playing career, represented our alumni executive and we will always remember him as a member of the Flames family,” Flames president and chief executive officer Ken King said Tuesday in a statement.

“This is a terrible loss of a man with great character who truly loved the game of hockey. We express our sincere condolences to the Zalapski family.”

Zalapski was a member of the Canadian team that finished fourth in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

He had 99 goals, 285 assists and 684 penalty minutes in the NHL. Zalapski was named to the all-rookie team in 1989 and participated in the NHL All-Star Game in 1993.

Zalapski played stints in Austria and Switzerland after his NHL career and appeared in 11 games for the United Hockey League’s Kalamazoo Wings in 2004-05.

He was the fourth overall pick by the Penguins in the 1986 entry draft.