BUFFALO – The Sabres have a pretty simple free agency plan. The rebuilding club wants to add some respected veterans, preferably skilled ones who can mentor the team’s youngsters and are willing to take a short term, perhaps just a year or two.
Yes, the Sabres need to add salary badly when the market opens at noon today. After all, they’re a stunning $20,580,834 under the floor. But reaching that mark, a touchy subject for general manager Tim Murray, isn’t the goal.
With No. 2 pick Sam Reinhart and more elite prospects coming, Murray wants “some good people around them on the ice” and in the dressing room, he said.
“I don’t want to get too tied up on term because I think there’s a lot of unknowns here, and when I say unknowns, I mean young kids,” Murray said Monday inside the First Niagara Center. “Are they ready at 20, 21 or 22? When a kid’s ready to play, I don’t want him blocked by someone else.”
The Sabres, of course, can overpay, which could certainly be enticing. Murray said the Sabres have accessed values on players.
“Are we going to have to pay $500,000 more than we think we should?” he said. “That’s possible, but that’s a lot of players for me.”
Free agents with “a lot to offer on the ice” probably won’t find Buffalo desirable, Murray said.
“Are we going to be the No. 1 destination for a lot of these free agents?” he said. “No. We’ve got to get there.”
That leaves the Sabres looking for players possibly nearing the end and looking at Buffalo for comfort or family reasons.
“I know I’ve got calls from that type of player that wants to either come back or come here for the first time because they know something about here or know people that are here,” Murray said. “I think there’s some good options.”
Murray said he’s pleased with the interest players are showing in the Sabres.
“Certain players see opportunity,” he said. “They see the rebuild happening and see that we’re going to add two or three very good young players to our team for the next three or four years. I think that’s attractive to certain free agents.”
The Democrat and Chronicle reported the Sabres have spoken to Steve Barlett, the agent representing Montreal captain Brian Gionta, a Rochester native. The Canadiens are still in the mix, however.
Two unrestricted former Sabres, 31-year-old captain Steve Ott and 30-year-old winger Matt Moulson, recently had their agents contact Murray, who traded them before the March deadline. Both could have some good years left.
Before Murray dealt Ott and goalie Ryan Miller to St. Louis, Ott expressed a strong desire to stay with the Sabres, saying he liked the organization and community. The thought of a Sabres resurgence excited him.
“We saw what Steve Ott did here,” Murray said. “To a guy that is a character guy that’s in the portion of his career where he thinks he can help a young team but help young guys get better and still make a good buck in doing it, it’s an attractive position to be in.”
Murray cautioned “one conversation doesn’t mean that they’re coming here for sure.”
Meanwhile, Miller, a target of Vancouver’s, likely won’t be re-signing here. While Murray wouldn’t rule it out, he said he hasn’t spoken to Miller’s camp.
What about 35-year-old defenseman Henrik Tallinder, an unrestricted free agent?
“I haven’t said I don’t have interest in him,” Murray said. “I’ve talked to his agent, too. I think he’s the type of player that depends on what other players decide to do, whether he’s back or not.”
Whatever happens today, Murray won’t be thinking about getting to that $51 million mark.
“I’m not worried about the floor,” he said. “I’ll sign you on the 4th of October (opening night) if I have to. We’ll get to the floor. That shouldn’t be our focus here. I know it is, but we’ll get there.”
Some teams near the salary ceiling, Murray said, could find a free agent irresistible and deal with the cap problems later. That could make someone available to the Sabres.
Clearly, Murray has some tough work this summer. He promised to stick to his plan.
“I knew it was big job, and I know it’s a job that has to be done the proper way, and that’s hard,” said Murray, who took over in January. “That’s the hard part. We all want to speed things up. As soon as I got here I said, ‘I wish it was 2016.’ But it’s not.
“You have to do it properly, and you have to go through the good and the bad that goes with it. I firmly believe we’re going to stay the course here and do what we think is the right way to be a good team for a long time.”
Murray called 2014-15 “a new beginning.”
“There was so much change last year,” he said. “This is where we start off and lay down the right lessons. Are we going to be way better? I’m not saying that at all. Things will be way better, expectations, how you play the game, how you carry yourself as a pro. Those things have to get better.”