Tim Murray needs to boldly tear down Sabres to build them up

Ken Campbell
Tyler Myers

Tim Murray was roundly seen as the heir apparent to take over the Ottawa Senators hockey department from his uncle, Bryan. But he took the Buffalo Sabres job for two reasons. First, the was no guarantee 71-year-old Bryan would step down after this season. Second, Tim Murray is walking into a great situation with the Sabres.

The Sabres are a 30th place team whose immediate prospects look bleak, but they have a bevy of prospects and picks, commodities that will be bulked up if Murray decides to trade Ryan Miller and Matt Moulson before the trade deadline. And if they can repeat the feat (?) next year, guess what? They’ll stand the best chance of anyone of getting Connor McDavid. The also have the Islanders first pick either this year or next as a result of the Thomas Vanek trade.

So what the Sabres need least in their GM is a guy who can just draft and develop hockey players. Truth be told, that has never been the problem with the Sabres, who earned high marks through the Darcy Regier tenure for their prospect list. No, what the Sabres need now is a talent evaluator who can spend owner Terry Pegula’s many millions wisely and, most importantly, make bold decisions.

And the first of those decisions, if it hasn’t already been made, is to completely tear down the Sabres in order to build them back up again. And when I say completely tear them down, I mean strip them right down to the wood. If you’ve decided to make it all about the future, you might as well go all the way with it.

And where Murray has to think of starting that is with buyouts, specifically when it comes to defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers and winger Ville Leino. You might be shocked to hear Myers’ name mentioned among those the Sabres should buy out, but in many ways it makes sense, assuming you believe Myers will not return to the form he showed in his first year in the league.

The Sabres still have two compliance buyouts remaining, according to the new CBA. That amounts to two get-out-of-contract-jail-free cards for them. They could buy out two of the players with those and make the other a regular buyout and come out with no long-term commitments, no onerous contracts and a completely clean slate.

Let’s start with Leino, the most likely player to be bought out. He has a cap hit of $4.5 million and is owed $11 million over the next three seasons. If the Sabres were to buy him out after the season, they’d owe him $7.3 million in real dollars spread out over the next six seasons.

Ehrhoff, meanwhile, has seven years left on his deal at a cap hit of $4 million. Because much of his money was paid in signing bonus the first two years of his 10-year deal, he is owed only $18 million. So buying him out would be about two things. One would be to save the $4 million in cap space the next seven seasons. The other would be to make sure the NHL does not penalize them for circumventing the cap when they signed the deal when it was signed in 2011. The last three years of the deal call for a salary of just $1 million, but if Ehrhoff were to retire, the Sabres would still be on the hook for a $4 million cap hit in 2018-19, ’19-20 and ’20-21. The buyout would save the Sabres only $6 million in real cash, so this would be all about cap hit as well.

Where Murray would have to swallow hard is with Myers, who is just 23 and could very well flourish with another team if he were to leave. But Myers has struggled mightily since winning the Calder Trophy four years ago, partially under the weight of expectation brought on by his contract, and there is a sense he may never be able to return to form in Buffalo.

Buying out Myers would represent a huge cash savings first, largely because he can be bought out at one-third of the value of his contract. Over the next five years, Myers is owed $20.5 million in real money, an amount that is reduced to $6.8 million if the Sabres buy him out. If they used the compliance buyout on him, the $5.5 million cap hit would be wiped out. If not, they’d face a cap hit of $1.2 million for 2014-15 and ’15-16, $2.2 million in ’16-17, $2.7 million in ’17-18, $3.2 million in ’18-19 and $683,000 from 2019-20 through ’23-24.

If the Sabres buy out all three, the total cash savings will be $23.3 million. The cap hits amounting to $14 million for the next three seasons, the $9.5 million in 2017-18 and ’18-19 and the $4 million in ’19-20 and ’20-21 would be reduced to almost nothing. The Sabres, meanwhile, have two of the best defensemen in the World Junior Championship in Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov in their system, so it’s not as though the Sabres would not be able to replace Myers and Ehrhoff.

But more importantly, it would clear the decks for the Sabres to start anew and build a Stanley Cup team the way the Pittsburgh Penguins and Colorado Avalanche did. Sabres fans are knowledgeable enough to recognize a rebuild when they see one and while they might grumble and stay away in the short team, the long-term dividends will pay off.

During his news conference Thursday, Murray said of Buffalo ownership, “They’re very open to doing things properly. And if it costs a little more money, then we’re going to do it.”

That should include being willing to pay underperforming players a substantial amount of money to not play for them. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Sabres to build a Stanley Cup team and if Murray is as decisive as everyone says he is, he’ll recognize that himself.