By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Alexander Sulzer arrived three months ago as an unknown short on NHL experience. The German immediately became the Sabres’ seventh defenseman, a role he knew well from being scratched 51 times during his brief tenure with the Vancouver Canucks.
It was assumed Sulzer might play occasionally before quietly departing during the offseason. Then Andrej Sekera became ill, and the 27-year-old began assuming regular duty.
Within about a week, Sulzer was skating 20 minutes a night beside countryman Christian Ehrhoff and turning heads, playing a key role in the Sabres’ wild March run.
On Monday, the Sabres rewarded Sulzer, signing him to a one-year, $725,000 contract. He would’ve become an unrestricted free agent in July.
“I think he played very well with Christian,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said Monday inside the First Niagara Center. “I think … you really noticed his composure out there, his ability to not only break up plays – which is the most important thing defensively – but to make plays offensively and the patience that he showed.
“We were surprised – pleasantly surprised – with his play. That really moved us toward trying to get him signed.”
Sulzer compiled three goals, eight points and a plus-2 rating in 15 games with the Sabres. He had one tally and eight points in 74 NHL games prior to joining the team Feb. 27 with center Cody Hodgson for winger Zack Kassian and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, a spare part like Sulzer.
“It really stemmed from the Hodgson-Kassian deal,” Regier said about acquiring Sulzer. “We had talked to them about Gragnani. This was an opportunity really to pick up a defenseman. (It) really was a two-for-two type trade.”
The Sabres have seven NHL defensemen on the roster, eight if you count 21-year-old Brayden McNabb, who impressed in 25 NHL appearances as a rookie and looks ready to graduate.
Regier said the depth gives the Sabres flexibility.
“I think it allows us to not only look at our defense – we feel comfortable there – but it gives us an opportunity to look at maybe the movement up front as well,” he said.
In a rare chat with reporters, Regier also hit on several other topics. Among them:
– Regier expects maligned center Derek Roy, who’s entering the final year of his contract, to be “back at this point.”
“We … expect him to have a very good season at this point,” he said.
Roy, a colossal disappointment while recording only 17 goals and 44 points in 2011-12, said at locker cleanout day he didn’t like coach Lindy Ruff’s public criticism.
– Regier said Hodgson, who was scorched by Canucks general manager Mike Gillis recently, has been a model citizen with the Sabres.
“I only speak from the Sabres’ vantage point,” he said. “We’re thrilled to have him. Our dealings with Cody, I’ve been very impressed with him, with his professionalism, how he’s conducted himself, his work ethic, his willingness to learn, his desire to get better. There’s just nothing but positives that come out of our sides of the trade.”
Gillis said he “spent more time on Cody’s issues than every other player combined on our team the last three years” and showcased him for a trade.
– The Sabres haven’t made any decisions about forwards Brad Boyes and Jochen Hecht, their two unrestricted free agents.
Boyes scored eight times in 65 games and looks like a goner. The 34-year-old Hecht, who battled concussions throughout the season, is the longest-tenured Sabre.
“Those are the decisions we’ll continue to make as we get closer to free agency,” Regier said.
The Sabres plan to send qualifying offers to all of their restricted free agents, including those in Rochester, Regier said.
The Sabres haven’t started contract talks with their most notable RFA, center Tyler Ennis.
– Regier on improving the Sabres this offseason: “We’re going to look at the free agency market, and it’s a pretty small marketplace. We’ll look at the trades. We’ll look at the draft. I think that’s where you’ll see most of the activity going into free agency. The flexibility that we have with the two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and then just we’ll have a better understanding as we get closer to the draft as to what exactly is available on the market outside of the free agency.”
He said finding the “right” center would be a priority.
– Regier doesn’t believe the uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement, which expires Sept. 15, will affect free agency.
“I think it’s such a small market,” he said. “The top players there are going to get signed. I think the unknown of the new collective bargaining agreement is going to cause people to think. There’s a lot of questions revolving around the collective bargaining agreement we don’t have answers to. So maybe it’ll cause teams to be a little more conservative.”
Depth center Paul Szczechura, who had one goal and four points in nine games with the Sabres, has signed with the new KHL team in Prague, Scott Norton, his agent, told the Gazette.
Szczechura had an agreement to play in the KHL this season before a knee injury voided the deal, Norton said. The Sabres inked him late in the summer, and the 26-year-old tallied 21 goals and 46 points in 57 games with Rochester.
Norton said he had some “open and honest” discussions with the Sabres about where Szczechura fit in. More money from the KHL also convinced Szczechura to go overseas.