Tim Murray is entering his third offseason as the Buffalo Sabres General Manager. As opposed to the previous two offseasons, the expectation is different entering the 2016-17 season. The Sabres are expected to compete for a playoff position next season and the spotlight is on Murray to make the necessary roster upgrades to get his team there.
When Murray first took over as general manager the fanbase understood that the organization was in the middle of a rebuild. A good majority of the fans were on board with the “tank” and suffering through a losing season that ultimately rewarded them with Jack Eichel. Last season was basically another free pass season for Murray. The fanbase was energized by the acquisitions of Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane. Again, there was an understanding that the team was still rebuilding, but the pieces were starting to fall into place.
This summer the approach is to build a playoff competitor and nothing else. The attitude is always to win of course, but the “free pass” is gone for Murray. A city that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2011 is done patiently waiting for a winner. The Sabres need to be at the very least in the playoff race near the end of the 2016-17 season.
If the club has another season like the previous one, questions will start to be asked about if Murray has what it takes. Don’t get me wrong, the 2015-16 season was a great sign of improvement, but another 81 point season will not be acceptable next year. I’m not suggesting that it’s playoffs or bust for Murray and that he could be let go if the Sabres fail to reach this goal. However, the seat will start to get really warm and, as Murray once said, it won’t be all “unicorns and rainbows and jujus” for him.
Topping Last Offseason
It’ll be pretty difficult for Murray to top what he pulled off last summer for the Sabres. He made two big trades in acquiring Robin Lehner and O’Reilly. If you want you can also throw in the Kane trade, although that was made mid-season. Perhaps most importantly, Buffalo added the second overall pick and new face of the franchise in Eichel. The additions of those three forwards gave a boost to the organization and even had some talking about the Sabres as a potential playoff sleeper.
I don’t expect the Sabres to enter the fall with three new big forward pieces to add to the lineup come opening night. I do, however, expect Murray to do everything he can to fix the two biggest holes on the roster: adding another top four defenseman and a winger to play with Eichel and Sam Reinhart. In regards to adding a blueliner to the roster, Murray stated in his postseason press conference that his top priority would be adding a quarterback defenseman.
The return of Tyler Ennis will help fill out one of the two top six winger positions. The potential options to fill the other have already begun to swirl around. Murray could be a player in free agency. He could look to bring in one of the top unrestricted free agents in Steven Stamkos or Kyle Okposo. Stamkos is rumored to want to play center next season wherever he signs, but I don’t see that being a problem. The Sabres can slot Stamkos in at center and move around the other players in the top six. Harvard free agent Jimmy Vesey is another interesting player to consider for Buffalo come August, but at this point I believe he’s likely to sign elsewhere. The free agent market for defenders isn’t the best, but players like Brian Campbell and Alex Goligoski are interesting ideas.
If Murray misses out in free agency there’s still other options. Having the reputation as a dealer, he can explore the trade market to fill his needs. A few defenseman are rumored to be on the block come this summer. The Anaheim Ducks may listen to offers on moving on of their three young blueliners in Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm. St. Louis Blues defender Kevin Shattenkirk is another name that’s out there for the Sabres to consider. More recently, the name of Colorado Avalanche restricted-free-agent Tyson Barrie has made his way into the rumor mill. Barrie would certainly fill the quarterback defender that Murray desires.
The trade route is available to fill the need in the top six as well. The Edmonton Oilers are open to listening to offers on some of their young forwards. A few restricted-free-agents like Valeri Nichushkin and Chris Kreider could be targets as well for the Sabres general manager.
Long story short, the options are there for Murray to help his team improve. This offseason and upcoming regular season are very important for him. The grace period to fix the club is over and fans are expecting the team to be a playoff contender beginning in the 2016-17 season.