The final grade on the Buffalo Sabres' 2011 free-agent signings remains incomplete because of the lockout. Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino are both coming off subpar seasons, but then again so is 95 percent of this team's roster. So will Buffalo's free spending last year hurt them down the road?
The answer is yes, even though there are a lot of undetermined factors still left to play out.
When a new CBA is finally signed, will the cap come down as much as the NHL wants it to?
And will the league be able to punish teams guilty of circumventing the cap under the previous CBA's terms?
If the season started today, the Sabres' cap number would be more than $4 million over the forecasted figure (around $60 million). That would mean the Sabres would have to face losing a significant piece of the puzzle just to get under that dollar ceiling.
This dilemma can be directly attributed to their signing of Leino, for whom many felt Buffalo grossly overpaid. Six million dollars in the first year to score eight goals and 25 points is impossible to justify.
So is giving a guy a six-year deal for $27 million after he has career highs of 19 goals and 53 points.
The Sabres had already made two splashes before the beginning of free agency on July 1 last summer. They had traded for Robyn Regehr as well as for Ehrhoff's rights, which they turned into a controversial 10-year, $40 million deal that we'll touch on shortly.
The big fish, though, of that thin UFA class was Brad Richards.
Although the Sabres were thought to be in the running for him, he ended up picking New York over LA when he signed with the Rangers.
With him off the market, Buffalo overreacted.
They had improved the defense but had come up empty at adding any scoring. And so they settled for Leino.
So, if the Sabres are faced with making a move to get under the cap once (or if) the season starts, there is absolutely no chance they will find someone to take on Leino at $4.5 million a season.
That means they'd have to look at unloading someone like Drew Stafford or Andrej Sekera. Come summer of 2013, will they have the cap room to go after the likes of Cory Perry or Ryan Getzlaf?
As for the other big-name acquisition last offseason, Ehrhoff's contract may also hurt the Sabres in the near future. However, it wouldn't be for the same reasons as Leino's.
Buffalo signing Ehrhoff to the deal we mentioned earlier isn't the problem. Four million dollars a season for a defenseman of his caliber is a bargain in today's NHL.
The issue is with the front-loading that we've seen in numerous other contracts league-wide.
Now, for whatever reason, Gary Bettman and Co. seem intent on holding teams accountable for something they allowed to happen. Every single one of these contracts has to be approved by the league, so in essence they were complicit in allowing these teams to cheat the system.
Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo and Henrik Zetterberg all signed deals that were heavily front-loaded. Yet the NHL chose to make an example of Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils.
Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports thinks that the Sabres and several other teams may be next:
What this provision does is punish not only the teams that circumvented the cap during the "hey, EVERYONE'S doing it" days, but also the teams that tried to sneak in under the wire before the CBA expired: Shea Weber's 14-year contract, matched by the Nashville Predators after it was handed out by Ed Snider; Zach Parise and Ryan Suter's 13-year deals that drop significantly in 2022; and going back to last summer, Christian Ehrhoff's preposterous contract with the Buffalo Sabres in which he earns $6 million in the last four years and $34 million in the first six.
The provision he speaks of would put these teams on the hook for a cap hit every year of the deal, even if the player leaves or retires. For instance, if Ehrhoff retires after the seventh year of the contract, the Sabres would still see his $4 million hit for the following three seasons.
Whether this attempt by Bettman to wipe the egg off of his face is successful or not remains to be seen.
What we do know, though, is that the Sabres free-agent decisions in the summer of 2011 may slowly come back to haunt them.
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