The greatest fear of NHL fans has been realized as the lockout is now officially upon us. For the second time in eight years, and the third time in Gary Bettman’s tenure the NHL owners have locked out the NHL Players Association after failing to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.
For now this is a minor inconvenience, training camp is scheduled to start within a week, but the first regular season contest isn’t scheduled until Thursday October 11th. So there remains a sliver of hope games aren’t lost if the two sides can come to terms prior to that date. Realistically it looks as though if an agreement can be reached it might be until late November or early December until we see regular season action, coinciding with a shortened season ala the 1994-95 campaign that featured a 48 game season.
What does this mean for the Buffalo Sabres? Well at the moment it doesn’t change much as we are still in pre-training camp time. The Sabres were scheduled to open up camp this coming week, with their pre-season schedule starting on September 24th. Obviously if a new CBA isn’t ratified prior to then, those plans will be scrapped. Pre-season can be shortened so the loss of training camp and pre-season games doesn’t necessarily mean regular season games have to be lost if say the two sides agreed on a new deal in the next ten days.
As with prior lockouts, NHL players may look to European leagues to play while the NHLPA and the Owners continue to work towards a new CBA. In the locked out season of 2004, then Sabres winger Jochen Hecht played the entire year in his home country for Adler Mannheim of the DEL. At this moment no Buffalo player has accepted an offer with another league, but expect many Sabres to be courted over the next few days.
The lockout doesn’t affect the younger players and prospects quite as much as the veterans. While they are missing a chance to participate in NHL games, the Canadian Junior Leagues and the American Hockey League will operate as usual, so prospects can be sent to play for their team’s affiliates and continue to gain experience. This proved to be quite a blessing in disguise for Buffalo in the 2004 season, as Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, and Ryan Miller all gained valuable playing time and experience playing for the Rochester Americans during the lockout. This extended experience at the AHL level led to a surprisingly deep and offensively gifted Buffalo roster in the 2005 NHL season carrying the Sabres to their first of back to back conference finals appearances. Should the lockout result in a lost season, look for similar experience to help guys such as Luke Adam, Brayden McNabb, TJ Brennan, and Zemgus Girgensons.
From a contractual standpoint the Sabres managed to make an eleventh hour deal with restricted free agent forward Tyler Ennis to complete their offseason makeover. Ennis was signed to a two year contract worth an average of $2.8125 million per season. This is a fantastic deal for both sides. In Ennis Buffalo is bringing back a player who racked up 34 points in an injury shortened 48 game campaign last year and who may be the team’s number one center for less than $3 million per year. What this does for them is put them in a position where they are paying for what Ennis has done on the ice thus far, not for what he may do in the future. Tyler Ennis hasn’t had a breakout season yet, and though he appears primed to in the near future, he is a player who has yet to eclipse 50 points in a season. His average annual value coming in at just under $3 million is right in line with how he has produced the past two seasons.
On the flip side for Tyler, the deal is only for two seasons, giving Ennis the opportunity to prove his worth heading into his next contract where he will most certainly make more money. In the short term he settled for less than Jeff Skinner, Tyler Seguin, and other young RFA’s signed this off-season, but in their defense they were more established than Ennis. With the short contract Tyler just needs to prove he belongs in the same category and he will assuredly earn the big bucks down the road.
So what’s next for the Sabres? The prospects will report to their CHL and AHL camps, and the veterans will be working out on their own, with some opting to sign in European leagues until a new CBA has been been signed. We know Buffalo will look like a different team on the ice when NHL play resumes, how soon we get to see them is yet to be determined. Let’s just hope everyone stays healthy while the powers that be work on coming to terms and getting the blue and gold back onto the ice sooner than later.
-Brandon Hess can be followed on twitter @SabreHess