Deadline Moves the Sabres Should Make

It’s official – the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres are not a playoff team.

Well, it’s not official… yet. Mathematically speaking, the Sabres are still in playoff contention. The team sits just six points out of the final wild card playoff spot with 21 games left to play. A stretch of good games could allow the team to sneak into the playoffs, which would be their first appearance since the 2010-11 season.

Kyle Okposo Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen, Philadelphia Flyers vs Buffalo Sabres – October 25, 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, this isn’t going to happen, because this year’s Sabres aren’t a playoff team. A 5-3 loss against the last place Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center proves this. Playoff teams don’t give up three goals in the first period against the worst team in the league.

The team’s dwindling playoff hopes nicely coincide with the arrival of the trade deadline, which takes place on March 1. Now that the team has likely accepted its fate as a non-playoff team, the Sabres will do what other bottom-dwellers do at the trade deadline – sell, sell, sell.

The Sabres have a number of veterans on expiring contracts that playoff teams could take on as rentals. We’ve compiled a list of deals the Sabres should consider making before March 1.

Defensive Deals

What many considered to be the Sabres’ largest trading piece is now off the board, as captain Brian Gionta has made it known that he wants to remain a Buffalo Sabre for at least the rest of the season. The team will hopefully honor the 38-year-old’s wishes and look to trade some of their other players on expiring contracts.

The Sabres have a number of defense men on their roster that won’t be on the team after March 1. One is Dmitry Kulikov, who is in the final year of his three-year, $13 millioncontract.

Kulikov, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers on the second day of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, was expected to fill a top-four role for the Sabres this season. However, injuries have prevented the Russian from making any sort of impact with the team.

Kulikov is still a talented defenseman. Although the 26-year-old has a hefty cap hit of $4.3 million, some playoff teams may be willing to take this on to bolster their defensive core. In a league in which the Carolina Hurricanes received a second-round pick for 35-year-old Ron Hainsey, receiving a high draft pick for Kulikov isn’t out of the question.

As proven by the Hainsey trade, the asking price is high for defensemen, which is something the Sabres should take advantage of. Cody Franson is another defender with an expiring contract. Like Kulikov, Franson has failed to make an impact. While Franson has failed to develop into the top-tier defenseman that many thought he could become, he could still slot in nicely on a playoff team’s backend. Receiving a third or fourth-round pick in exchange for Franson is conceivable.

Changes in Goal

Anders Nilsson (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Sabres have had a number of problems throughout the season. The offense has disappeared for games at a time. As has the defense. However, the goaltending position has been surprisingly great.

Both Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have single-handedly kept the Sabres in games throughout the 2016-17 campaign. The two Swedes have similar statistics and have been the most consistent part of the Sabres’ roster this year.

However, both goaltenders are in the final year of their contracts. Lehner will become a restricted free agent on July 1. Re-signing him will likely be near the top of Tim Murray’s to-do list. Anders Nilsson, however, will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. This makes him expendable at the trade deadline.

While Nilsson has performed well this season, the team likely won’t re-sign him before July 1. Linus Ullmark has performed well during his brief stints with the NHL club. The 23-year-old is ready to take over as the team’s backup goaltender. Notre Dame goaltender Cal Petersen, should he sign with the Sabres, would take over as the team’s top prospect goalie.

The Sabres seem set at the goaltender position, which is why the club should look to move Nilsson. If they’re going to let him walk this summer, why not acquire something for him now? With his solid statistics and a cap hit of just $1 million, Nilsson will be looked at by a number of playoff teams looking for depth in goal. A mid-round draft pick would be the probable return.

Stay the Course

Many expected the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres to be a playoff team. They won’t be, but that doesn’t mean that the Sabres should blow up the roster.

Moving players on expiring contracts is acceptable, as it’s better to get something for a player than nothing. However, moving players that are crucial to the team’s future success is not acceptable.

Evander Kane
Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

Evander Kane has seen his name in trade rumors recently. The Vancouver-native has turned it on as of late, scoring his 21st goal of the season shortly before the team’s bye week. Teams who didn’t even look at Kane when the Sabres were shopping him late last year are now interested in the forward.

However, just because teams are interested doesn’t mean that Murray should pull the trigger on a deal. Kane is just now becoming the player the team was promised when they acquired him in February of 2015. Trading him now would be foolish.

In fact, trading any player not on an expiring contract at this point would be foolish. The team is young and talented, but they aren’t ready for the playoffs yet. The team should deal players in the final year of their contracts in exchange for draft picks, but that’s it.

The team’s roster is developing nicely. It’s unfortunate that they will miss out on the playoffs this season, but it will allow Buffalo fans to say something they’ve been saying for decades – next year is our year.