LEWISTON, N.Y. - The Buffalo Sabres have opened contract talks with Ryan Miller in a bid to sign the star goaltender to a lucrative long-term deal this summer, well before he can become an unrestricted free agent after next season.
The talks with Miller, revealed by general manager Darcy Regier on Monday, are a clear indication of the team's commitment to build from within rather than through NHL free agency, which begins Tuesday.
And the talks are a clear sign of the proactive approach the Sabres are taking this off-season after being faulted for waiting too long to lock up co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Buffalo lost both players in free agency a year ago, and their departures were blamed for the team missing the playoffs this past season after the Sabres had reached the Eastern Conference finals in each of their previous two years.
Miller is scheduled to make US$3.5 million in the final year of his contract this season. Under NHL rules, the Sabres are allowed to speak to the player, but prevented from signing him to a new deal until Tuesday.
"It's too early to say, but any time we have any conversation in that area, it's always good," Regier said, characterizing the discussions, after the team's rookie training camp session at Niagara University.
Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn, in April, had called signing Miller and forward Jason Pominville to long-term deals as the team's top priorities this off-season.
Pominville also has one year left on his contract. Regier said he intends to start negotiations with Pominville soon.
Miller's agent, Mike Liut, confirmed that talks have begun but didn't go into much detail.
"There's nothing imminent, but of course, it's promising," Liut said. "I wouldn't downplay it. I wouldn't up-play it. This is the normal course of things."
It's expected that Miller is seeking a long-term deal in the range of the six-year, $41.25-million deal New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist signed in February. Miller completed his third full season with the Sabres and had an up-and-down year in which he had difficulty with the load of appearing in a franchise-record 76 games.
The former Michigan State star finished with a 36-27-10 record, four wins short of matching the Sabres' mark he set last year, and a 2.64 goals-against average, eight points lower than his career average. But he faltered, complaining of fatigue, during a 34-game string of appearances in which he went 18-10-5 and allowed 91 goals over the final three months.
Looking forward to the start of the free-agency period, Regier said the Sabres have targeted several mid-range players, particularly defencemen, to bolster their young roster, but he wasn't expecting to make any significant moves.
"Patience is always going to be a big part of what we're doing because we've got a very good core," Regier said. "As far as the big splash, you're not going to see that."
The Sabres have elected to allow five players to enter free agency, the most prominent being defenceman Dmitri Kalinin. Buffalo will also be in the market for a backup goalie after not re-signing Jocelyn Thibault.
The Sabres are about $14 million under the NHL's cap of $56.7 million. Regier said he's budgeting for a payroll in the range of $50 million.