BUFFALO – Three years ago, Henrik Tallinder sensed his Sabres career was ending. Despite a strong season helping then-rookie Tyler Myers develop into of the NHL’s top defensemen, the Swede knew the team had little interest in awarding him a long-term contract.
So when free agency opened, Tallinder signed a four-year, $13.5 million deal with the New Jersey Devils.
Had the Sabres offered even three years to Tallinder, he said he might’ve considered staying with the organization that originally drafted him 48th overall in 1997.
Tallinder’s departure worked out poorly for all sides.
Without Tallinder, his partner all 82 games in 2009-10, Myers has regressed mightily, even becoming a healthy scratch. Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Tallinder battled injuries the last two years, playing only 67 of New Jersey’s last 154 games.
Finally, on Sunday, with salary cap concerns and several youngsters in the pipeline, the Devils traded Tallinder back to the Sabres for Riley Boychuk, a low-level minor leaguer.
It’s probably safe to expect Tallinder will be partnered with Myers again when training camp opens in September.
Neither Tallinder nor general manager Darcy Regier were available for comment Sunday, although Regier said in a statement the Sabres were happy to have Tallinder back in the mix.
“His experience will be invaluable not only in adding more stability to our back end, but also in the development of some of our younger defenseman,” Regier said.
Tallinder’s three years older and has played one more game (614-613) than Christian Ehrhoff, the Sabres’ eldest defenseman late last season.
His presence makes for a crowded blue line. The Sabres, who had only five healthy defensemen with NHL experience briefly in April, have quickly rebuilt some depth.
They re-signed Alexander Sulzer on Saturday and inked Drew Bagnall for Rochester after free agency opened Friday. They also drafted Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov in the first round last week. The Sabres have said Ristolainen could play in the big leagues next year.
Eight defensemen on the roster – Ehrhoff, Myers, Sulzer, Tallinder, Jamie McBain, Mark Pysyk, Chad Ruhwedel and Mike Weber – played in the NHL last season. The Sabres also have prospect Brayden McNabb, who hurt his knee with Rochester last season after playing 25 NHL games in 2011-12.
At his best, Tallinder’s a smooth, shutdown defender – qualities he showcased at times during 468 games over parts of eight seasons with the Sabres from 2001-10.
Following the 2005 lockout, Tallinder became arguably the Sabres’ steadiest defenseman, quietly forming one of the league’s best duos beside Toni Lydman.
But injuries, most notably a separated shoulder, made Tallinder timid and limited his effectiveness. Former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff scratched Tallinder several times in 2008-09, including on his 30th birthday.
Prior to that season, Tallinder even acknowledged “he didn’t maybe go 100 percent into battles.” He rebounded nicely with Myers in 2009-10, however.
It’s worth noting Sabres owner Terry Pegula has said Lydman and Tallinder’s departure on July, 1, 2010 could’ve been more devastating than when co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left in 2007.
Tallinder battled injuries after leaving, playing only 146 games and missing most of the Devils’ 2012 Stanley Cup run. He made three final appearances, though, making it back from acute thrombophlebitis, a blood clot in his lower left leg. He played 25 times last season.
Tallinder has 26 goals and 134 points in his career. He comes with a $3.375 salary cap hit and a $3.5 million salary next season.
Boychuk, a winger the Sabres drafted 208th overall in 2010, spent last season with the Central Hockey League’s Fort Worth Brahmas. Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told the Newark Star-Ledger that Boychuk won’t play for the big club next season.
“Absolutely not,” Lamoriello said. “He’s just a minor league player. It’s a contract we had to take back.”
But Lamoriello insisted the move was made for more than cap space.
“We wanted to make room for the young players we have on defense,” he told the paper. “We just feel the young players we have … are ready, and Tally wasn’t used as much last year.”
He also said: “He’s a regular defenseman and he wasn’t playing regularly. It was a mutual understanding that I would try and do something with him. This will leave room for the kids.”
The Devils, now $7,187,500 under the cap, according to capgeek.com, must still re-sign restricted free agent center Adam Henrique. Marek Zidlicky, their top defenseman last season, is unrestricted.
The Sabres have $11,142,143 in cap space. For what it’s worth, Lydman’s a free agent after spending three years in Anaheim. So far, they’ve only signed Bagnall and Sulzer.