The Pegula Puzzle: Who to keep?

It is the first offseason under the Pegula Era and just about everyone is expecting to see significant moves made. This is the first part of a series aimed to focus on some of those changes. It is entitled “The Pegula Puzzle”. I will look at what will be taking place down at the corner of Washington and Perry during the summer months. The first portion will focus on which players are to be resigned before the July 1 free agency period begins.

The Sabres enter the offseason with 24 total free agents to resign. Many of these players (nine to be exact) played exclusively in Portland this past season. Of those nine, Dennis McCauley, Tim Conboy, Mark Parrish and Colin Stuart are unlikely to return. In addition, Tim Connolly, Patrick Lalime and Rob Niedermayer are unlikely to receive a contract from the Sabres as well.

Of the ten UFAs the Sabres have, I would only think Cody McCormick, Steve Montador, Mike Grier and Matt Ellis could return in 2011-12. Of those four, I would only extend offers to McCormick and Ellis. I would entertain the thought of bringing back Mike Grier for the veteran minimum in a limited fourth line role, but that wouldn’t be my first choice.

As for the RFAs, Darcy Regier has a little work cut out for him. He got off to a quick start by locking up Drew Stafford for $16 million before July was even within sight. There are also a couple names – Felix Schutz and McCauley – who he won’t need to worry about tendering with a qualifying offer. McCauely is a fighter and can be easily replaced, Schutz went back to Germany and will not receive a tender. I would also let Dennis Persson go. He has been passed by TJ Brennan and Drew Schiestel on the development track and Brayden McNabb isn’t far behind. Let Persson go back to Europe, outside of depth, he doesn’t offer much upside.

Still, Regier needs to decide what to do with the following group: Chris Butler, Jhonas Enroth, Nathan Gerbe, Marc-Andre Gragnani, David Leggio, Mark Mancari, Dennis Persson, Andrej Sekera, Travis Turnbull, Mike Weber and Derek Whitmore.

The easy decisions are Leggio, Turnbull and Whitmore. I would immediately tender them an offer to lock them up for next season. They are valuable commodities in the AHL and offer stability on that level. Not to mention, Leggio may have been the better goalie in the AHL for the Sabres last season. Keeping those three is the reason you resign Matt Ellis to a two-way contract as well. You keep the players in a strong organization that is committed to their individual success, while securing four vital cog’s to place in the locker room with your blue chip prospects.

Two more easy decisions for players that will be vital for the team in the upcoming seasons are Gerbe and Enroth. They established themselves as NHL players last season and both will serve a larger role in 2011-12. The questions lie with Mark Mancari and the defensemen. Personally, I would part ways with Mancari. It is obvious he cannot contribute at a regular pace in the NHL. He is a great AHLer but his game simply will not translate. If he is willing to play in the AHL, then I would try to reach a reasonable agreement. Otherwise, I would say goodbye.

The tough decision comes with evaluating Chris Butler, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Andrej Sekera and Mike Weber. I only see room to bring back two of these guys. The Sabres are in need of at least one veteran defenseman, maybe two. If that is the case you are looking at Tyler Myers, Jordan Leopold and two new faces in your top four. I would either trade or hide Shaone Morrisonn in the AHL (last resort). He is no longer part of the plan moving forward in Buffalo.

Given that logic, you don’t necessarily need four more young guns vying for two open spots. That is why I would tender Gragnani and part ways with Sekera. MAG offers quite a bit of offense to go along with Leopold and Myers, you don’t need anymore than three offensive defensemen. I would also tender Weber, a no brainer, he is strong defensively and is progressing quite well. Butler becomes the odd man out in this scenario. I am not a fan of his and I would much rather take a different avenue with my sixth or seventh defenseman. Personally, I think Schiestel will be able to bridge the gap as a seventh man as McNabb beings his professional development. You only need him in that role for a year, two at the very most.

So, I would be bringing back Leggio, Enroth, Weber, Gragnani, Gerbe, Turnbull, Whitmore, Ellis and McCormick. Mike Grier probably doesn’t fit in my plans. Best case scenario is he becomes a late signing. These moves still place an emphasis on youth development while trimming the fat for future acquisitions that will better serve the talent pool.

The next piece of the puzzle will see where the returning players fit on the roster for the 2011-12 season. Stay tuned.

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