The Buffalo Sabres find themselves at a fork in the road.
Currently sitting eight points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs with just a game in hand, they squandered what could have been a potential playoff push. Having lost twice to the Ottawa Senators and once to the Montreal Canadiens since coming off their bye week, the Sabres let their slim playoff hopes slip away.
While they are eight points back of a playoff spot, they are also eight points up on finishing in the bottom-five in the league. Lost in space is never the position you want to be in as an NHL team. With the trade deadline now less than a week away, general manager Jason Botterill has some tough decisions ahead. Let’s explore two different paths he can take.
Attempt to Build on Progress
Progress is a funny word. It can mean so many different things to different people. By definition, it would mean the Sabres are advancing towards their goal of winning a Stanley Cup and improving from where they were. Currently on pace for 85 points, they are certainly poised to improve on last season’s 76.
But is that really progress?
Let’s be honest, after eight seasons of utter futility, anything short of a postseason berth is a massive failure. Put in perspective, when the Sabres suited up against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, they surpassed 43,000 minutes of gameplay without a postseason game. That’s continuously playing hockey for a month straight without stopping. If I allocated that time to other pursuits, I could have probably mastered fly fishing, oil painting, underwater basket weaving and the tuba.
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Any idea who their leading point-getter was in their last series? Take three guesses. Nope. Not him. Incorrect. It was none other than Marc-Andre Gragnani, with seven points in seven games.
What’s behind the supposed progress this season? Look no further than captain Jack Eichel. After four strong seasons to begin his career, he has exploded this season, currently on pace for over 100 points. There have been nights he has dragged the Sabres kicking and screaming to victory this season. Without him, there is probably little difference between the Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings.
If Botterill has the mistaken view that his pending unrestricted free agents should be kept for a playoff run, it would be pretty damning to the perception of his ability to assess his squad. The reason the Sabres have not been mathematically eliminated is mostly due to the play of No. 9. Any fantasy that involves the likes of Conor Sheary, Jimmy Vesey, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson or Michael Frolik leading this team to the promised land needs to be immediately dismissed.
Further, the 2020-21 season will be a massive opportunity to throw some cleanser on this acne-ridden collection of players. With cap space galore and only four forwards currently signed for next season, the time to purge is now.
I’m not usually one to condone change for the sake of change, but in this case, I’ll make an exception. Outside of Frolik, the other UFAs have all been better this season than last. That’s great. Where has it gotten them? Hockey purgatory.
It is safe to say we are comfortable with what each player brings. There are no 30-goal seasons on the horizon for any of them. After years of mediocre seasons stapled to the salary ceiling, the Sabres have been gifted this opportunity for a major roster overhaul and an overall fresh start.
As for the players that are part of the future, having some fresh faces will no doubt do a world of good. Loss after loss, season after season, having the same old guys to look at every night has to be excruciating. Inserting some new blood can give the team and fans alike a new perspective and a refreshed mindset regarding the Sabres.
Prioritizing Picks the Best Route
The other option the Sabres have is to sell off anything they can for whatever they can. This is the route that Botterill should be taking.
Most would agree that to squeeze any value out of the available players will take some creativity. It is absolutely what should be done for the betterment of the franchise.
I’m not going to overstate the value of mid to late-round picks. They’re obviously not extremely impactful, especially in the short term. But let’s not lose sight of what they truly represent.
For every expiring contract moved for a pick, it symbolizes a new direction. It’s one last vestige of the darkest period of Sabres’ history. This needs to be embraced. While there may be no appreciable asset gained from these players that will be lighting the lamp next season, addition by subtraction is a real thing.
Additionally, losing these players for nothing would be a big mistake. Although the Sabres don’t have a stellar track record of drafting outside of the first eight picks, they can’t abandon all hope with their later selections. Each pick they acquire becomes another lottery ticket that can be used to find the next Ryan Miller or Victor Olofsson.
If Botterill can swing it, pushing for picks at the 2021 Draft may be the right move. Teams are typically more favourable to trading a slightly higher pick that is over a year away. The Sabres were able to trade Chris Stewart for the pick that eventually became Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, a prized piece of the Sabres’ future. At the time, trading for a second-round pick two drafts away seemed disappointing, but I would take a future second over a current third every day.
Bear in mind, the expansion draft is coming. Teams will want to have as many picks as possible in the 2021 Draft. To have the flexibility to work with the Seattle franchise can be a major boost. Teams will no doubt be more cautious than they were with the Vegas Golden Knights, but having more picks than your opponents during an expansion draft is never a bad thing.
Ultimately, draft picks are currency. Currency opens doors and gets you things you want. A five-dollar bill isn’t as much as a $20 bill, but if you saw one on the street you’d pick it up. The same is true with draft picks. When you’ve been as bad as the Sabres are at drafting, having as many bullets as possible to hit the target is the way you need to operate.
The Worst-Case Scenario
As frustrating as this Sabres’ season has been, it can get worse.
In fact, it could get much worse. They could decide to stay the course and keep hoping that the Florida Panthers struggle to find goaltending and the Maple Leafs continue to be bested by ice-makers. They could hope that they find some consistency and Eichel manages to find yet another gear to carry them — all the way to 87 points.
As much as we want to dream about a playoff berth, and as realistic as that hope could be had the Sabres not squandered so many points to the Senators, Canadiens and Red Wings, the playoffs are simply too far away for this squad. Making up this much ground with so little time left is not a reasonable expectation.
Progress this season will mean little in the grand scheme of things. Or at least, it should. The Sabres should be overhauling half of their forward group this offseason. With their defence mostly set and their goaltending locked up, a new crop of forwards will be donning the royal blue and gold next season. A run to finish 10th in the conference will offer little in the way of lessons to this new core.
Prioritizing picks will gain the team the currency and lottery tickets they need so bad. While I would certainly not be opposed to making a move for a young centre or right-winger with term, maintaining the status quo in hopes of seeing Miracle on Ice 2.0 would be a bad decision. We will learn a lot about Botterill come 3 P.M. Eastern on Monday.
Is Botterill a dreamer or does he have a calculated plan for 2020? His job depends on the latter.