Ales Kotalik hopes to learn from struggles as he reunites with Sabres

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The Buffalo Sabres turned a lot of heads with their 2011 summer spending spree, but GM Darcy Regier still has some work to do. The team is about $3.6 million over the salary cap ceiling as of this moment, which means that something has to give.

Regier and owner Terry Pegula are saying all the right things about moving that money through trades, but the team would be left with some unpleasant options in most of those cases because rival GMs know that the Sabres are in a cap crunch. That could mean that the Sabres might need to sweeten deals by sending a high-end draft pick with one of those contracts to get a deal done or some other headache-inducing situations.

Ultimately, if I were Regier, I’d beg for permission to bury at least one mediocre contract and then complete a more comfortable move to get under the cap. Don’t forget that merely getting under the cap might not be the only goal; what happens if the Sabres suffer enough small injuries that they cannot put anyone on injured reserve but they don’t have the space to call up someone from the minors?

My solution would be: “Bury Ales Kotalik’s cap hit + trade an expendable bigger contract,” whether that be Jochen Hecht, Brad Boyes or Shaone Morrisonn.

Of course, that formula cannot factor one thing: Regier’s soft spot for Kotalik. Out of context, it seemed obvious that the Sabres accepted Kotalik merely to make sure that they could land Robyn Regehr in a trade, but if any team is open minded about the winger, it’s Buffalo. Kotalik crossed the 20+ goal barrier four times during his first stint with the Sabres before he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in 2008-09. It’s been a rocky three seasons since then, with Kotalik being traded two more times before being demoted to the AHL. Kotalik should have gotten a taste of the harsh reality in front of him after every other NHL team passed on claiming him via waivers on two occasions.

The odds seem stacked against Kotalik, who is in the last year of a contract that registers a $3 million cap hit. That being said, the Czech-born winger seemed upbeat in an interview with the Buffalo News’ John Vogl earlier this week.

Last season’s stay in the AHL was a rejuvenating event, but Kotalik made it clear he has little desire to do it again. The 32-year-old believes he belongs in the NHL. He’s intent on proving that to the Buffalo Sabres when training camp starts in three weeks.

“Absolutely, I want to stay in Buffalo,” Kotalik said by phone from the Czech Republic. “I’m coming to training camp with an open mind. I know that I can measure with anybody on that team. I can measure myself up with any guy on that squad, on that team, and I hope I will get the opportunity that I need. Everything else is up to me.”

(snip)

“I’m excited coming over to see all the people I missed for two years,” said Kotalik, who was shipped by Buffalo to Edmonton at the 2009 trade deadline. “When I heard that I was part of the trade with Robyn Regehr, at first I didn’t know what to think. Then I got a call from [General Manager] Darcy [Regier] and Terry, and they told me that they took me for a reason. They still think that I can play.

“I’m excited. It feels like I’m at home, and hopefully I can prove to everybody who had doubts about me that I can still play and be a good player for that team.”

Again, if there’s any team that will give Kotalik the benefit of the doubt, it’s the Sabres. He’ll have to be very impressive to overcome his hefty cap hit and damaged reputation, though. We’ll keep an eye on the team’s interesting salary cap challenges as the season approaches – it might indeed come down to training camp for the team’s fringe players. Kotalik certainly ranks as one of those, even in Buffalo.

Agent: Schultz likes Pittsburgh, but wants to be ‘rewarded’

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Justin Schultz took a significant pay cut to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins last year.

He doesn’t begrudge the deal he signed, as the Penguins have been a big part of turning his career around.

One assumes winning a couple of Stanley Cups has been pretty fun, too.

That being said, the 26-year-old defenseman wants a raise.

“We took a one-year, discounted deal to come back from last year and build upon what he did,” Schultz’s agent, Wade Arnott, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The player took a lot of the risk. The player performed. Now the player should be rewarded.”

Schultz, a restricted free agent, had a career-high 51 points in 78 games last season. Those 51 points were the seventh most among NHL defensemen — just five fewer than this summer’s biggest UFA, Kevin Shattenkirk, managed.

Schultz then added 13 more points in the playoffs, as the Penguins managed to win it all without Kris Letang.

For the record, Schultz wants to stay in Pittsburgh. The question is whether the Pens can afford to keep him, or if they’d be better off selling high in a trade.

“We’ll probably have some more direction here this week with where we’re going with [a possible extension],” Arnott said. “But we’ve had some good discussions.”

After Stepan trade, Zibanejad negotiations become even more crucial

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For a good while, the center position in New York was largely carried by the one-two punch of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan.

Now, the Derick & Derek show is no longer.

Stepan was shipped out during draft weekend in a blockbuster deal with Arizona. Brassard exited a year earlier in a move to Ottawa that brought Mika Zibanejad to the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad, 24, was acquired by GM Jeff Gorton in the hopes of one day becoming New York’s No. 1 center. He certainly showed he was capable this season — despite missing nearly 30 games with a broken fibula, he put together a fine offensive regular season and then surged in the playoffs, finishing with nine points in 12 games.

And now, a big negotiation sits on the horizon.

Zibanejad is a restricted free agent coming off a two-year, $5.25 million deal with a $2.625M cap hit. As we wrote earlier, Gorton is “open to anything” with regards to the extension, saying he’d be willing to go either short- or long-term.

One has to think Zibanejad has a ton of leverage. His acquisition price (Brassard) was significant, Stepan is now gone, and so too is depth center Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired by Vegas at the expansion draft. Right now, New York’s center depth consists of Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes and maybe some spot duty from J.T. Miller.

Lias Andersson, taken seventh overall at Friday’s draft, said he wants to make the Rangers this year. But there’s no guarantee he’ll even play in North America this season, as Gorton could opt to send Andersson back to the Swedish League for further development.

The free agent market isn’t especially inspiring down the middle, unless someone thinks they can land Joe Thornton, and there’s no doubt Zibanejad’s seen the paydays scored by some other good, young, top-line centers. Winnipeg gave Mark Scheifele $49 million over eight years, while Calgary gave Sean Monahan $44M over seven.

Is Zibanejad at their level? If you surveyed folks around the league, the answer would be probably no. But he could be soon and, what’s more, the Rangers may be forced to pay him as if he already is.

Sabres bring back defenseman Fedun on two-year deal

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Taylor Fedun, the Sabres depth defenseman that was set to become a UFA on Saturday, has agreed to a two-year, two-way extension, Buffalo announced on Monday.

Fedun, 29, appeared in 27 games for the Sabres last year, splitting time between the NHL and the club’s AHL affiliate in Rochester. He was a very productive player for the Amerks, scoring 23 points in 29 games.

Moving forward, most expect Fedun to continue in the same role he served this year — a guy that can provide veteran stability at the minor league level, and fill spot duty at the NHL level when injuries strike.

Ottawa extends Pyatt — two years, $2.2 million

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Tom Pyatt, the veteran forward who enjoyed some success reuniting with Guy Boucher in Ottawa last season, has re-signed with the Sens on a two-year, $2.2 million deal, per TSN.

Pyatt was a steady contributor for the Sens, scoring nine goals and 23 points while appearing in all 82 contests. He averaged over 15 minutes per night and was a vital part of the club’s penalty kill, leading all forwards in blocked shots.

He also appeared in 14 playoff games, scoring twice.

Prior to playing in Ottawa, Pyatt had skated under Boucher in Tampa Bay. They spent parts of two years together with the Lightning, before heading off to Switzerland — Pyatt with Geneve Servette, Boucher with Bern SC.

Pyatt was set to become an unrestricted free agent on Saturday, but clearly liked the fit in Ottawa. He’ll get a pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made last year — a bit more long-term security, and possibly a bigger role with the Sens moving forward.

Ottawa has already stated it will cut ties with veteran tough guy Chris Neil, and decisions are still looming on UFA forwards Viktor Stalberg, Chris Kelly and Tommy Wingels.