For two days, the Buffalo Sabres sat in limbo waiting for Calgary Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr to decide whether to waive his no-move clause and accept a trade to Buffalo. In the process, Sabres fans built excitement like the team had just acquired Nicklas Lidstrom rather than the beat-up, mediocre blue liner Regehr actually is. He became the missing piece, the one to fill the gap between the Sabres losing in the first round and competing for the Stanley Cup. Before setting foot in Buffalo, he became Tyler Myers' new mentor and the locker room presence the team has lacked since Michael Peca wore a "C" on his sweater.
One blogger wrote: "He will take Myers by the ear and teach him how to be a pro." The Buffalo News said, "He's a physical presence on the blue line and a veteran leader, one who will help tutor a defense corps that has four players aged 25 or younger."
Leader or no, the reality is the Sabres just spent essentially $7 million on what will be their fifth-best defenseman. Regehr will make $4 million, but as part of the deal, Buffalo was forced to take replacement-level forward Ales Kotalik for $3 million. Last year, by Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), Steve Montador (9.8), Mike Weber (6.7), Jordan Leopold (8.7) and Tyler Myers (9.0) all ranked higher than Regehr (6.3). Four of those d-men will return in 2011-12. Rookie Marc Gragnani, who scored seven points in seven playoff games this year, is also expected to be in next year's lineup.
The old, "he'll make young players better" fallacy is running wild with the acquisition of Regehr. By that logic, shouldn't Shaone Morrisonn have made others better? What about Craig Rivet? There's something to be said for veteran leadership, but if the Sabres plan on putting Regehr on the front line with Myers, he'll be hurt more than helped. Myers had a difficult stretch to begin last season, but was elite during the second half and playoffs. The 6-foot-8 Calder Trophy winner makes other players better (See: Tallinder, Henrik), not the other way around.
The Sabres prematurely jumped at the chance to trade two young players and take on Kotalik's ugly contract. Sure, Regehr isn't completely past his prime and could reasonably play well enough to be worth $4 million. But Montador was having a special season for the Sabres before being slowed by injury. He still finished with the best GVT on the team. Because of his difficult second half, the Sabres could have gotten a reduced price and the same or more output than Regehr.
The options for players similar or better than Regehr don't end at Montador. Two d-men who also had the same GVT as Regehr (6.3) are Ian White and Joni Pitkanenboth free agents and younger than the newest Sabre. Other free agent veteran defensemen include James Wisniewski (9.8), Tomas Kaberle (9.3), Eric Brewer (8.0) and Bryan McCabe (6.9).
Each of these more productive defensemen could be had for $4-5 million and the Sabres wouldn't have had to give up anyone. The blue liners who made around $4 million last season are all in the same talent range. For example, Mark Giordano (9.4 GVT) made $4.02 million last season, John-Michael Liles (9.6) made $4.2, Tobias Enstrom (11.4 GVT) made $3.750 and Andrej Meszaros (11.6 GVT) made $4 million.
The point is, there are several first-to-second pairing caliber defenseman (which Regehr is not) available in free agency, yet the Sabres preferred to give away Chris Butler (who had a 6.2 offensive GVT, 2.2 overall in 49 games) and prospect Paul Byron who scored 53 points in 67 AHL games last season. Butler has performed at times for Buffalo, so much so that he earned a spot on the first pairing with Myers against the Philadelphia Flyers.
But the Sabres are out to prove their new ownership is different. They lost in the first round, so naturally the consensus became that they needed someone with playoff experience. Well Regehr certainly has that. He has played in 41 playoff games during his 11-year career. However, 26 of the 41 were played during Calgary's Cup run in 2003-04 when he was 23 years old. He's played in just 15 playoff games since then and zero since 2007-08.
And then there's the salary cap. Buffalo is sitting in a descent spot with $12 million currently free. But with negotiations for a long-term deal with Myers in the works and Andrej Sekera, Mike Weber and Gragnani all restricted free agents, the Sabres are going to run out of space quick. Not to mention GM Darcy Regier said the team may re-sign Tim Connolly. Of course, they can buy out Shaone Morrisonn's $2.075 million contract and hide away Kotalik's $3 million in the AHL, but they still won't have enough room to take on much more in free agency or from a trade for a high-end center.
Sometimes the NHL offseason is like playing Deal or No Deal. In trading for Robyn Regehr, the Sabres basically stopped after opening the first case. They took the first deal because it was safer than waiting and taking the risk of being rejected by players like Kaberle or White. Sure, they got something, but if they had opened more cases they could have gotten something much better.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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