Monday, February 25, 2008

Buffalo Sabres: A Development Team?

When the current CBA was passed, superficially the biggest change appeared to be the addition of a salary cap, but many believed that the biggest change was actually the liberalization of free agent rules. Players became unrestricted free agents at a younger age than ever before (potentially as young as 25) and this would force teams to build by signing free agents. Further, the penalties for signing restricted free agents were decreased. This would make it harder for teams with lower payrolls to keep the talent they produced. It was believed by many that this would lead to some of the smaller market teams becoming development squads for the bigger markets as they would continually be sending their talented free agents to bigger markets. Although this is yet to happen universally (in part due to teams signing their talent to extra longterm contracts) some teams have been negatively affected by the liberalized free agent rules. No team has been more negatively impacted then the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres looked like a very good team in 2005/06. They took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes to seven games in the semi-finals and likely only lost due to an injury depleted defence. However, they have been unable to maintain any of that momentum due to free agency losses.

That summer, Buffalo lost JP Dumont to free agency when they declined his arbitration award. Dumont has gone on to be a Nashville Predators star (his 58 points would lead Buffalo in scoring if they kept him). Dumont recently signed a four year contract that pays him $4 million a year (which is far more then the $2.9 million Buffalo walked away from). This past summer, Buffalo lost two more elite free agents in Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. Briere currently has 55 points in Philadelphia and would be tied for the Buffalo Sabres scoring lead if they kept him. Duruy's 46 points would make him fourth in Buffalo in scoring (though his defensive game adds further value that would increase his value above this level). Buffalo clearly has a depleted offensive depth because of their free agency losses. Buffalo was further challenged when Edmonton signed Thomas Vanek to a large restricted free agent offer sheet. Though Buffalo kept Vanek, they tied up far more resources in his contract than they would have preferred.

These losses of key players have reduced Buffalo from the level of Stanley Cup contender to that of a team struggling to make playoffs. If the season ended right now, Buffalo would take the eighth and final playoff seed in the East Conference, but they only are holding it by one point.

The losses of players to free agency in Buffalo are not over yet. Their top defenceman, Brian Campbell will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He is unlikely to be back next season. That loss will further weaken the Sabres.

It can be argued that Darcy Regier, the Sabres GM, brought this problem on by misplaying the free agent market. He failed to negotiate with his free agents early enough to allow him to sign them at lower rates (some of the players he lost would have reportedly been willing to do so if Regier was willing).

As the salary cap continues to rise, it is likely that more team will go down the Sabres path of producing talent but continually losing it to other markets when it reaches free agency. This is bad for the NHL. It weakens any league to have perennial also ran markets that cannot afford to keep enough talent to be solid contenders. Is Buffalo the first of many?

The Buffalo Sabres have been very negatively affected by the liberalized free agency rules in the CBA. They have lost more talent to free agency then any other team in the league since they were adopted. It doesn't look like there is an end in site. Likely, the best UFA defenceman this summer is a Sabre. As the salary cap continues to rise, likely more teams will be forced into this path.

Remember that Buffalo was ranked 1st or 2nd in the players' poll that asked the players what their least favourite NHL city is. Clearly, there are many non-economic factors working against the Sabres, and it has little to do with the salary cap.

Until Regier and the Sabres can stop dicking around with their players, they'll continue to lose talent.
I agree with Jes. If you rank the 30 teams in anything, then there has to be a 30th team on the list. Buffalo has lost a number of good players in free agency recently but that may not be due to the new CBA. It could be that Regier miscalculated their value on the open market, or decided that signing them to long-term deals a la DiPietro or Ovechkin wasn't feasible.

As teams adapt to the new agreement they'll be more savvy about things like bonuses, no-trade clauses, and front- or back-loading contracts. But even then - one team is always going to have the worst off-season and one is always going to have the best, regardless of the rules. If Buffalo keeps Campbell, or trades him for good value, or improves their team each of the next three seasons, it won't be because the CBA changed, but because they changed their approach under it.
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