Sabres Botterill Plays it Safe

With roughly the same odds to land the No. 1 overall pick at the NHL Entry Draft (4.7%) than to make the playoffs (4.2%), it would have taken one if not two blockbuster deals to turn the Buffalo Sabres into playoff contenders before the clock hit 3 p.m. on Monday’s Trade Deadline day. It didn’t happen.

General manager Jason Botterill swung two moves. The first was sending a conditional fifth-round pick to the New Jersey Devils for forward Wayne Simmonds. The second deal sent forwards Connor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues to the Pittsburgh Penguins for forward Dominik Kohun.

Botterill Believes He’s Building

According to the GM, they were both notable moves. “As an organization, it’s time for us to continue to build. We’ve talked a lot about playing meaningful games in the month of March. I think with some of the moves that we made today, we’re hopefully setting our team up to better accept that challenge.”

They were both signature low-risk, high-reward plays. Simmonds, a six-time 20-goal scorer, is likely nothing more than a rental right winger. The veteran adds some toughness and a never-take-off-a-shift effort which this team does all too regularly. Production-wise, dealing Sheary back to his old team and moving a player who requested a trade–Rodrigues–is basically a wash, though it did free up some cap space.

Sabres Welcome Wayne Simmonds

Simmonds, a 31-year-old power forward, waived his eight-team modified no-trade clause to join the Sabres. Though the trade was for the Sabres’ fifth-round pick in 2021, it becomes a fourth-rounder should Simmonds play in 10 or more games or if the Sabres make the playoffs this season.

Wayne Simmonds New Jersey Devils
Wayne Simmonds waived his NMC to join the Sabres. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Simmonds has a wealth of experience to a team filled with young players. Only Carter Hutton, Michael Frolik and Kyle Okposo are older than he is. The 12-year veteran has 251 goals and 247 assists in 902 career regular season games. In 44 playoff games, he has eight goals and 13 assists.

Simmonds Bounced Around

Despite coming off two seasons with multiple injuries, including a pelvic tear, broken ankle, pulled groin and torn ligament in thumb, the New Jersey Devils offered Simmonds a one-year, $5 million deal on July 1, 2019.

Before that, he finished out the 2019-20 season with the Nashville Predators after being dealt to them by the Philadelphia Flyers at the deadline.

Related: Sabres’ Kahun Is a Solution for the Top-Six

Simmonds, 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, was originally selected by the Los Angeles Kings with the 61st overall pick in 2007. He played three full seasons with them, debuting in 2008-2009 season.

Subban on Simmonds

Former Devils’ teammate P.K. Subban had only good things to say about Simmonds.

“Whether it was sticking up for guys or competing every night or driving home messages from the coaching staff, I think Buffalo is getting some good leadership there,” said defenseman P.K. Subban. “I think that’s probably a little of what their team needs, too.

“I know he’s a guy that wants to win. He’ll do everything in his power to help that team.”

With his physical style, Simmonds is likely to see time on the second power play unit. He’ll add some sandpaper to a team that desperately needs it.

“For Wayne, playing meaningful games in the month of March and April is something he’s very accustomed to,” said Botterill. “And I think you’ve heard (head coach) Ralph (Krueger) talk a lot about net-front presence, playing a physical game. I think these are things that come natural for Wayne.

“We also know that we have a young group. He has a strong personality, and I think his leadership is going to help our group out a lot.”

Okposo’s Subtle Plea for Help

After their win against the Jets on Sunday, the day before the trade deadline, Kyle Okposo smiled during his post-game interview. “I think we made Jason’s job a little bit more difficult. That’s what our goal was.

“We’re looking forward to whatever team that we have on Tuesday and going out west and getting some wins.”

Kyle Okposo hasn’t seen the postseason since 2016. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

His words were heard by Botterill. Instead of possibly moving two-thirds of the grind-it-out line of Okposo, Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons, he kept them. Larsson and Girgensons, both pending unrestricted free agents were rumored to be asked about by contenders wanting depth.

Sabres Ready for Final Playoff Push

The Sabres are playing their second best stretch of the season right now. They have wins in five of their last six games and are 7-3-1 in the last 11 games. They own the third best record in the Atlantic for the month of February. With a glimmer of hope and the crumbling Toronto Maple Leafs in sight, only six points ahead of them, Botterill thinks his additions will make a difference.

Related: Sabres’ Problems Run from Top to Bottom

“We understand we’re not a finished product,” said Botterill. “With this group, you see the potential. I see the dialogue that our players are having with our coaches and our staff, and you want to see them have success.

Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill
Sabres GM Jason Botterill thinks he’s posiitoned his team for success. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

The Sabres have an uphill climb in front of them, including their next four games against the Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes and Winnipeg Jets. These next 20 games on their schedule are basically playoff games. Every point matters. They’re meaningful games that they haven’t played in March for nearly a decade.

“I’m happy that we were able to make some moves that I think puts us in very good position, and now we’ll see how we progress over the next month or so.”

— GM Jason Botterill

Botterill’s deadline deals may not be enough to get the Sabres into the postseason this year. He’s put himself in a tough situation with underperforming acquisitions, a blood-thirsty fan base and owners who demand better. He definitely didn’t whiff with his two moves, but on the other hand, he barely took a swing.