Buffalo Sabres sign Marc-Andre Gragnani to one-year deal, must clean up salary cap mess

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The Buffalo Sabres just announced that they re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani. The financial terms were not disclosed, but the amount couldn’t have been too high since the Sabres are already almost $4 million over the salary cap ceiling according to Cap Geek.

In a vacuum, it’s great news for the Sabres to re-sign the young offensive blueliner, who was voted the AHL’s defenseman of the year and then made an impact on the NHL-level last season (three points in nine regular season games and then seven points in the team’s seven-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers). Gragnani could be a big part of Buffalo having a much-improved defense next season after they also brought in Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr.

That being said, the Sabres now face two messes they will need to clean up because of this and other moves. The first is the most obvious: they need to unclog at least $4 million worth of cap space before the 2011-12 season begins. They might bury a salary or two in the AHL* and/or trade away a player or two. Jochen Hecht ($3.525 million cap hit) has been mentioned as a possible trade target because of his cap hit, expiring contract and the notion that he might be an odd man out with all of the team’s new hires.

Buffalo’s challenges extend beyond getting under the cap this summer

With all that focus on the immediate future, the one-year deal also underscores something that might be a problem for the Sabres: next off-season. They could experience some serious restricted free agent headaches in the summer of 2012, especially if Gragnani has a strong full season. Tyler Myers could cost a bundle of money to re-sign and Tyler Ennis is another promising young player who can earn himself some nice dough with a strong 2011-12 campaign.

The good news is that the Sabres will probably be able to keep who they want the most since they have a big chunk of aging players with expiring contracts. Buffalo has almost $50 million committed to 15 players for 2012-13, with some cap relief coming from the expiring contracts of Hecht, Brad Boyes ($4M), Ales Kotalik ($3M) and Paul Gaustad ($2.3M). The problem is that the Sabres’ big spending might force them to put a top-heavy team on the ice if the trio of Myers, Ennis and Gragnani end up breaking the bank.

Ultimately, the Sabres should celebrate the re-signing but also realize that they have a lot of work to do in the next month and then next off-season. It remains to be seen if their big spending will actually be worth it.

* = Hopefully Kotalik didn’t get too excited about playing in Buffalo again …

The Buzzer: Kempe, Schwartz record hat tricks; Leafs honor Gord Downie

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Players of the night: Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues / Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings

The Blues forward tallied his third career hat trick during a 5-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Schwartz scored the game’s first two goals before completing his hat trick with a late empty-net goal to stave off a Chicago comeback.

Wednesday’s feat for Schwartz came three years to the day of his first career three-goal game.

Kempe, meanwhile, tallied his first NHL hat trick and finished with four points during LA’s 5-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens. Two of his three goals were assisted by Mike Cammalleri, who also finished the night with four points.

Highlight of the night:

Eddie Olczyk returned to the NBC broadcast booth as he continues his battle against colon cancer. Olczyk, along with Doc Emrick, called the Blues-Blackhawks game from Scottrade Center Wednesday night.

MISC:

Auston Matthews recorded the 20th multi-point game of his career. He now has six goals and 10 points on the season.

Patrick Marleau became the 18th NHL player to reach the 1,500-game mark.

Jake Allen kept his shutout bid alive with this great stick save on Patrick Kane late:

-The Kings are off their best start in franchise history at 5-0-1. They’ve allowed only 10 goals against through six games.

Jeff Carter left the game in the first period and did not return after tangling with Jeff Petry. Afterward, Kings head coach John Stevens said the forward will miss some time.

-Finally, The Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie passed away from cancer at age 53 on Wednesday. The Maple Leafs paid tribute before their game against the Red Wings.

Factoid of the night:

Scores:

Maple Leafs 6, Red Wings 3

Blues 5, Blackhawks 2

Kings 5, Canadiens 1

Cammalleri, Kempe power Kings over Canadiens

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Adrian Kempe recorded his first career NHL hat trick and Mike Cammalleri added two goals as the Los Angeles Kings beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

After Paul Byron opened the scoring for Montreal midway through the first period, the Kings responded with five unanswered goals to hand the Habs their sixth straight defeat.

Cammalleri, who inked a one-year deal over the summer to return to the Kings, had a hand in four of LA’s five goals. He started the scoring for the Kings in the first period by celebrating the Dodgers’ playoff run with his own special kind of baseball swing.

Kempe, who finished with four points as well, scored his three goals over a span of 10:50 in the third period to help the Kings to their best start in franchise history (5-0-1).

LA remains the only NHL team yet to lose in regulation this season.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Jaden Schwartz’s hat trick leads Blues over Blackhawks

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Jaden Schwartz‘s third career hat trick helped power the St. Louis Blues over the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 in a Central Division clash Wednesday night at Scottrade Center.

Schwartz’s eventful evening began with a goal 4:46 into the first period. It was nearly ended minutes later after a scary crash into the end boards following a scoring chance.

After missing some time, Schwartz returned in the second period and doubled the Blues’ lead with his fourth of a season, thanks to a great outlet pass from Allen.

As the Blues built up a 4-0 lead, the Blackhawks spoiled Allen’s shutout bid with a pair of late power play goals 80 seconds apart. The furious rally was stopped, however, and Schwartz capped off his hat trick with an empty netter to put the game out of reach.

St. Louis dominated the first two periods, outshooting the Blackhawks 26-8 as they built up their 2-0 lead. The Blackhawks’ power play failed them early in the game, missing out on five chances to capitalize with the extra man through 40 minutes.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens at Kings

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The Montreal Canadiens play their second game of a three-game west coast trip Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

It hasn’t been the best start for the Habs, who sit tied for last in the Eastern Conference with a 1-4-1 record. They’re winless since an opening night win over the Buffalo Sabres. On the other side of things, the Kings are the only NHL team that has yet to lose in regulation. Their 4-0-1 start puts them a point behind the Vegas Golden Knights, and their game in-hand gives them the opportunity to leap into first place in the Pacific Division with a victory.

You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (10:30 p.m. ET) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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