By Bill Hoppe
Greater Niagara Newspapers
The Sabres finally got the defenseman they coveted Saturday morning, and in convincing Robyn Regehr to change his mind, waive his no-movement clause and leave Calgary, the new ownership group proved it’s serious about pursuing a Stanley Cup and making the Queen City a prime NHL destination.
Has a player ever waived something to come to Buffalo? Owner Terry Pegula helped persuade Regehr the Sabres would be “a good fit for him and the right place,” general manager Darcy Regier told reporters Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, site of the NHL Entry Draft.
Would former owner Tom Golisano have done that? Would he have acquired someone due $4 million each of the next two years? Probably not.
The price for Regehr, the big, physical defender the Sabres sorely need, was steep. The Sabres dished 24-year-old defenseman Chris Butler and center prospect Paul Byron to the Flames for a 2012 second-round pick and old friend Ales Kotalik, a Sabres winger from 2001-09.
The Sabres believe it’s worth it, though. The 31-year-old Regehr, 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, is now the team’s oldest defender. The 11-year veteran has played 826 NHL games, all with Calgary. The Sabres’ eight defensemen last season averaged just 26 years.
“It’s not just veteran leadership, it’s size and experience,” Regier said. “ … With the history he has and the age he’s at with years ahead to play, I think he can really do a lot for our younger defensemen.”
Most notably 21-year-old Tyler Myers, already one the league’s top defenders. Myers struggled mightily early during his sophomore campaign as he searched for a new partner to replace Henrik Tallinder. He finally began showcasing some chemistry late in the season beside Butler.
Now Regehr, reportedly Myers’ favorite player growing up in Calgary, could skate with him.
“We think that he can help and do a lot for someone like Tyler Myers,” Regier said. “That combination of the youth and the experience, I think that blend will do well for us.”
So what happened? Why did Regehr change his mind and leave his only NHL home? He reportedly had other options, but Flames general manager Jay Feaster later said he just had the Sabres deal in place.
“I mentioned it to them, that I wasn’t ready to waive ... and we needed a little more time to look at some stuff, they were very understanding,” Regehr, who was looking at a possible trade with San Jose, told the Calgary Herald. “I said that we’re not slamming the door closed here. In order to make the best decision possible for everyone, we needed to look at everything.”
Regehr spoke to several players familiar with Buffalo, including current defenseman Jordan Leopold and Rhett Warrener, a retired defender who still makes his home here.
Regier and Sabres coach Lindy Ruff also talked to him. Pegula, who left the draft with Ruff to fly and meet Regehr at his cabin in Saskatchewan after the deal was done, possibly had the biggest influence.
“That was a huge part of it,” Regehr said. “Terry’s a very committed guy. Him and his wife Kim are there to win a Stanley Cup, and to do that in the next three or four years. And he’s willing to put the resources into the team in order to give it a shot. I was excited to hear that. You could just tell they were extremely committed.”
Regier, who had been working on the trade for a couple of weeks, added: “I think it was more a situation in which (Regehr) was dealing with Calgary in lieu of his no-move, no-trade (clause), having some say in the process. So he had to get that type of comfort level.”
Meanwhile, Butler, the 96th overall pick in 2005, played 155 games with the Sabres over three seasons.
Butler fell off a cliff early last season, continuing a dive that began when he lost a regular lineup spot late in 2009-10. Butler sat 30 of the first 51 games as a healthy scratch. The memories of Butler playing a calm, steady game as a rookie in 2008-09 seemed distant.
He wasn’t utilizing his greatest asset, skating, enough. He had become a defensive liability (he was minus-15 in 2009-10) and looked like a bust.
By March, however, Butler secured a lineup spot and ran with it, forming a solid No. 1 tandem beside Myers. Butler skated 25 minutes some nights during the postseason. He faltered the last couple games, though.
“He’s a terrific person, he’s a great player,” Regier said about Butler, a restricted free agent. “Unfortunately, these are decisions you have to make. You make some choices because of what you think are the needs, and Calgary was also insistent on him being a part of the deal.”
Calgary possibly insisted that the Sabres take Kotalik, an albatross at $3 million a season. The 32-year-old, who had three 20-goal seasons with the Sabres and a career-high 62 points in 2005-06, has produced little since the he was dealt to Edmonton in 2009.
The Czech has only 22 goals in 116 games since he left Buffalo. The Rangers signed him to a three-year, $9 million contact two years ago, and then traded him to Calgary when he was a minus-18 after only 45 games. When Kotalik wound up in the minors last season, many thought his NHL career was over.
Perhaps returning home will revitalize Kotalik, who’s known for his wicked slap shot and shootout prowess. Regier said the Sabres have no plans to buy him or any other player out right now. Rochester could be an option for Kotalik, however. The Sabres have a glut of wingers.
“Al can play in the National Hockey League, and he played an important role for us,” Regier said. “We expect him to come into camp and compete for a position.”
Byron could get a position right away with the Flames, a team with a severe shortage of prospects. The 22-year-old, the 179th pick in 2007, had one goal and two points in eight NHL games last season.
He impressed the Sabres a lot, even nudging veteran Rob Niedermayer out of the lineup briefly. Byron had 26 goals and 53 points in 67 games during his second AHL season in Portland.
Byron had a strong chance to make the Sabres in a year or two, but Pegula and company want the franchise’s first Cup, and they paid a high price to move closer to their goal.
“This is maybe the secret of Buffalo,” Regier said. “From the outside you might have one image. When players come there and play there, they love playing there. So it’s to get them there.”