By Bill Hoppe
General manager Darcy Regier said Andrej Sekera’s new four-year, $11 million contract reflects the strong case the Sabres defenseman had if he had gone to arbitration next week.
With 29 points last season, including 17 during a late 16-game stretch, Sekera would’ve received a handsome reward. By settling Tuesday, the Sabres got value with a $2.75 million salary cap hit, and Sekera, a restricted free agent, received a longer deal than the two-season arbitration maximum.
“What this provided us with was a longer-term contract at what we felt were very good numbers, and the belief that he would step up and not only provide the consistency, but I think we’ll see a lot of growth in him as well,” Regier, who also inked veteran forward Matt Ellis to a two-year contract Tuesday, said inside HSBC Arena.
With Sekera signed, the Sabres have a 25-year-old on the verge of becoming a star. At his best, the Slovak is a supreme puck-rusher, eats minutes and produces points.
But his contract creates problems, albeit ones Regier knew would accompany the Sabres’ aggressive offseason under new owner Terry Pegula.
The Sabres now have the NHL’s No. 1 payroll, $66,695,357, putting them $2,395,357 over the $64.3 million salary cap, according to capgeek.com. They can exceed the cap by up to 10 percent during the offseason and have until opening night to get under.
“I think in all likelihood we’ll be a little below the number,” Regier said.
That means trades, buyouts or assignments to Rochester could be coming. Regier, who has said he would explore trades, said the market is “quiet” right now.
“There are still a number of players out there that teams are trying to assess their situations and the unrestricted market,” Regier said.
The Sabres still have two restricted free agents — goalie Jhonas Enroth and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, both fresh off strong rookie seasons — to sign.
Regier said the Sabres are “moving closer” to signing Enroth, who won nine of his 14 appearances. He also anticipates keeping Gragnani, whose seven points topped all Sabres in the postseason.
“We think that Marc will play with us and contribute offensively and will grow,” Regier said.
When Gragnani signs, the Sabres will have eight defensemen under contract. Six usually dress for a game. Having two spares can be problematic.
“It becomes difficult when you get to eight,” Regier said. “Seven is always manageable. I think eight can be manageable, unfortunately, if you’re in an injury situation or performance-related. … That’s something we’ll need to talk about, and if we need to address it, we’ll find a way.”
Former captain Craig Rivet often sat as the eighth defender last season. Shaone Morrisonn, the No.8 defenseman right now, could be a buyout candidate.
Still, Regier views the depth as a good thing.
“If you’re going to be successful as a club, you have to have a lot of defensemen, and you have to have the depth,” Regier said. “If there’s a position to have numbers, it’s defense.”
That’s one reason why the Sabres refused the part with Sekera, who made $1.25 million last year. The fierce blue line competition in the winter allowed coach Lindy Ruff to sit Sekera briefly when he struggled. When Sekera returned, he performed like the elite defender the Sabres envisioned when they drafted him 71st overall in 2004.
“It really reflected what our scouts saw when he was playing junior,” Regier said. “He can put up numbers, he can play big minutes, he can play in important situations, and that’s what we expect going forward.”
Regier had indicated earlier arbitration could be avoided.
The sides assessed Sekera’s value as it related to the restricted free agent market for two seasons and another two seasons unrestricted, said Allan Walsh, Sekera’s agent.
“It was a very amicable negotiation,” Walsh said.
Meanwhile, Ellis, a ferocious worker and popular teammate, has a two-way deal next season and a one-way contract in 2012-13.
“Matt … is extremely well respected with the Sabre club, anyone he’s played with at the minor-league level,” Regier said. “Just the quality of person he is, the work ethic that he brings, the example he sets is recognized by coaches, by the trainers and by his teammates. He’s important for the organization, for the growth of our younger players and for depth for the Sabres.”
Despite zero points last season, the Sabres went 12-2-1 with Ellis in the lineup. He was Portland’s captain in 2010-11, and could serve again in Rochester.
The likable 29-year-old was excited to learn he’d return for a fourth season in the Sabres organization.
Pat Morris, Ellis’ agent, relayed the news to his client at the gym.
“He said, ‘I feel like a 20-year-old tossing the weights around,’” Morris said. “He was ecstatic.”
In May, Regier told Morris the Sabres wanted Ellis back.
“It’s almost like Darcy saying, ‘Go exhaust yourself, see what’s there and then come back before you do anything,’” said Morris, who found several interested teams. “That’s what I did toward the end of last week.”
In other Sabres news, Regier said he began interviewing head coach candidates this week for the Sabres’ new affiliate in Rochester. He hopes to hire someone within the next two weeks. Kevin Dineen, the team’s AHL coach in Portland, was recently hired by the Florida Panthers.
Regier also said:
• Ruff, who’s out of town this week, should hire a new assistant coach soon. The Sabres let associate coach Brian McCutcheon go earlier this offseason.
• Winger Jason Pominville, who suffered a sliced tendon in his lower leg during the playoffs in April, is “on course” and should be ready for training camp.
“He’s healthy, he’s good,” Regier said.
• Regier enjoys being on the other end and wheeling and dealing after many quiet summers.
“(Teams) recognize that we’re in a different position than we have been in the past,” Regier said. “And in most cases, especially teams that have been in our situation, they’re happy for us.”