As the Feb. 25 NHL Trade Deadline rapidly approaches, the Buffalo Sabres are a few points outside of the playoffs. Their brief residency in the upper echelon among the NHL’s best is a distant memory as is their franchise-tying ten-game win streak. While they’re much improved from last year and far from the league basement, they’ll have to scratch their way into the playoffs to end their seven-year postseason drought.
Are they buyers or sellers? Or both? The Sabres need forwards, specifically a center and a winger or two, that can offer some secondary scoring. It was wishful thinking to believe rookie Casey Mittelstadt would instantly and easily fill the shoes–or skates–of Ryan O’Reilly as the team’s second-line center. Instead of green-lighting him to pursue his strength as a goal-scorer and surrounding him with veterans like Jason Pominville who can cover for him, he’s been forced to play a responsible two-way game. The team needs scoring more than it needs a highly skilled teenaged back-checker.
General manager Jason Botterill has gone on record saying he’s not in the rental business. He’s only interested in players who can help now and in the long term. It’s easy to cherry pick players from other teams but desirable players come at a cost. You have to give up something to get something.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie tweeted that the Sabres are, “Not “buying” rentals. Sabres would desperately like to stay in the hunt to promote development of their kids but won’t give up notable future assets to do it.”
The Sabres at Center
The Sabres have ten players signed as centers: Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Vladimir Sobotka and Johan Larsson are with the team while Kevin Porter, Rasmus Asplund, Kyle Criscuolo, Andrew Oglevie, Sean Malone and Eric Cornel are in Rochester playing for the Amerks. Come July 1, Larsson, Malone and Cornel will be restricted free agents (RFAs) while Kyle Criscuolo and Kevin Porter will be unrestricted free agents (UFAs). The rest are signed and under contract for at least another season.
As expected, Mittelstadt is still adjusting and has a promising future. “I’ve gotten a little more comfortable, and the game has started to slow down,” said Mittelstadt. “Obviously, we need some scoring help, so I try to be that guy and help the team out wherever I can. I’m very happy with where I’m at. It’s been a fun year so far.”
Banking on Sobotka to reinvent his game is not a bet many would make. Asplund, though playing good minutes and developing in Rochester, would be a question mark jumping into a second-line position with the Sabres. Therefore, the primary concern is bolstering the team’s roster at center. Botterill is likely looking to land a proven center with some term remaining on his contract.
The Sabres at Right Wing
Buffalo has five right wingers signed: Sam Reinhart, Evan Rodrigues, Jason Pominville, Kyle Okposo and Danny O’Regan. Reinhart and Okposo are signed for next season, Rodrigues is an RFA while fan-favorite Pominville and O’Regan will be UFAs at the end of the season.
It’s possible the Sabres will try to sign “The Mayor” to a much more cap-friendly contract. The Amerks top-line right winger, Wayne Simpson, is presently signed to a minor-league contract. The 29-year-old born in Boxborough, MA, has 30 points in 48 games. Housley has played Thompson on the right wing with spotty results. The games in which he’s been invisible outnumber those in which he’s made an impact.
Any way one looks at it, there’s a glaring need for help on this side.
The Sabres at Left Wing
The Sabres have ten players under contract on the left wing: Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Zemgus Girgensons, C.J. Smith, Remi Elie, Victor Olofsson, Alex Nylander, Scott Wilson and Taylor Leier.
Of these, Skinner is the only UFA and frankly, the only one that the Sabres need to keep. Talks between Skinner’s agent and Botterill for a contract extension have apparently been going on for several weeks. The All-Star will demand a big deal, and given his production, age and skill, he’s exactly the kind of player the Sabres need to wrap up. He’s a proven scorer and is the peanut butter to Eichel’s chocolate. In the event the Sabres cannot sign Skinner, he’ll be one of the most coveted players on the market.
Girgensons, Smith, Elie and Leier are all RFAs while the rest are signed through at least 2019-20.
Smith and Olofsson have produced in Rochester, with 41 and 43 points, respectively. It’s possible they could make the jump to the NHL next season. Smith has not looked out of place in his small sample size with the big club. Nylander plays left and right wing and has 24 points in 42 games. The Sabres’ eighth overall pick in 2016 has registered 55 points (18 goals, 37 assists) in 116 games in his first two AHL seasons and will be 21 years old next month. Despite his mediocre AHL production, there will be GMs out there who believe his talent belies his stats. He could be trade bait.
The Sabres on Defense
On the right side, the Sabres have Rasmus Ristolainen, a finally healthy Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, Matt Tennyson, Will Borgen and Jack Dougherty under contract. Next year, Tennyson will be a UFA and Doughtery an RFA. The others will still be under contract.
On the left side, there are eight defensemen signed: Rasmus Dahlin, Jake McCabe, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Lawrence Pilut, Matt Hunwick, Brendan Guhle and Brandon Hickey. Six of the eight blueliners are signed for next season while McCabe and Beaulieu are set to become RFAs.
While no player is exempt from being traded, it’s unlikely the Sabres would deal Dahlin or Pilut. Dahlin is Dahlin, a rising star and living up to all the hype and Pilut is arguably the second-best puck-moving defenseman on the team and one of their better blueliners on the roster.
Botterill has some currency here. McCabe could fetch a nice return, but he’s become one of the team’s better defensemen.
As Sabres fans know, a team cannot have enough depth in the playoffs. Beaulieu played all of two games in January and has yet to dress this month. He’s taken up residence in the press box and has made it known he wants to play or be traded. He should be moved. Guhle is a prospect that will likely draw some attention.
The Sabres sent a third rounder to the Penguins as part of the trade for Hunwick. It bumps up to a third-rounder if Sheary hits 20 goals or 40 points or if Buffalo trades Hunwick. Therefore, if Hunwick fetches less than a 4th round pick, the Sabres would only be diluting his value and would be better off waiving him.
At this point, if Scandella, Beaulieu or Hunwick can bring in a future pick or be packaged in a deal, it should be a no-brainer. The Sabres should play their best players (i.e. Pilut) and give themselves the best chance of making the playoffs.
The Sabres Goaltenders
The Sabres duo of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are joined by Scott Wedgewood, Jonas Johansson and Ukka-Pekka Luukkonen. Ullmark and Wedgewood will be RFAs at season’s end while Hutton, Johansson and Luukkonen are signed for next year.
Hutton and Ullmark have performed admirably and worked well with one another this season. It’s unlikely the Sabres are dealing any of their netminders right now.
Finding Forwards and Making a Deal
The Sabres are on the doorstep to make the final wild-card spot, yet they’re more than a player or two away from becoming a legitimate contender. Getting a taste of playoff hockey and some postseason experience would be invaluable. If Botterill doesn’t feel he has a deal he likes, he could wait until the 2019 Entry Draft, where the team has three first-round picks: their own, the San Jose Sharks’ (since they’ll make the playoffs) and likely the St. Louis Blues’ pick (unless it’s deferred to 2020).
There are several teams with a bevy of forwards that need to acquire defensemen. The Winnipeg Jets, Blues, Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Dallas Stars could become trade partners. As of Wednesday night, of these teams, the Red Wings and Devils are out of the playoffs and will therefore likely be sellers. A few names that could be targets include: Andreas Athanasiou, Valeri Nichushkin, Brayden Schenn and Brett Ritchie.
It’s possible Botterill takes a hard look at Reinhart and Ristolainen. Their names have come up before.
They are serious assets that could net a serious return should the GM go the “shake it up” route. Trading Ristolainen, a minute-hogging defenseman who routinely chips in 40-plus points would be tough. But if the return is right, one or both could be moved. Big names like the Ottawa Senators’ Mark Stone and New York Rangers’ Kevin Hayes have been in rumors. What would it take to lure and sign Artemi Panarin? Would he rather overpay for an elite player (i.e. Panarin, Skinner) than spend a little less for middle-tier players they hope pan out?
Botterill’s Time to Shine
Botterill inherited a lot of Tim Murray’s mistakes. Aside from high first-round picks, few players drafted by the organization have been developed and made an impact. In the last 14 years, the Sabres have yet to draft a player who has gone on to score 30 goals in a season. Only Eichel and Reinhart, second-overall picks, have come close. He clearly has holes to fill and a new precedent to set at the draft.
Patience is a tough sell in Buffalo. The Sabres’ quick 17-6-2 start has been followed by a troubling 11-15-5 record. They’re one slump away from falling out of contention for good. That said, building a competitive team doesn’t happen overnight, or in Buffalo, over the span of seven years. This team is likely several players away from a deep run. Bringing in a Panarin doesn’t automatically fix the shortfalls of Scandella, nor will it turn Sobotka into Connor McDavid.
Playing meaningful games in March, while not a benchmark, is a sign of progress. The turnaround from the last place to the playoffs is a rarity, though it’s been accomplished by the Colorado Avalanche and Devils in previous seasons. One thing is for sure: it’s a critical time for Botterill to earn his keep.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”