Whether he likes it or not, John Gibson and the Anaheim Ducks have become the center of the NHL’s annual offseason trade buzz. When it was reported earlier this month that the goaltender was allegedly open to being traded from the Ducks, speculation has been fervent and the internet has exploded with proposed scenarios, despite him repeatedly denying the rumors.
Articles titled something like “Why (insert team here) should trade for Gibson” have appeared on almost every hockey site imaginable ever since, including the Buffalo Sabres. What separates the Sabres from so many of those teams, however, is that they could actually be a plausible suitor for him if he ever wanted to leave Anaheim. Unlike many teams, trading for him would make perfect sense on Buffalo’s part and the team has the assets to make it happen. But would they be willing to?
Gibson is Mighty, the Ducks are Not
Though Gibson’s career with the Ducks started strong, Anaheim has consistently been trending in the wrong direction. The team qualified for the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, including a trip to the Western Conference Final in 2017. Though they were swept in the first round of the 2018 Playoffs, they weren’t discouraged and locked their goaltender down with a massive eight-year, $51.2 million contract on Aug. 4, 2018 (coincidentally also his wedding day).
The three-time NHL All-Star has continued his strong level of play since then and possesses a lifetime 2.67 goals-against average and .915 save percentage after the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. Unfortunately for him however, the Ducks have only regressed since then and it seems that a rebuild is now inevitable for the franchise after a seventh-place finish in the Pacific Division. Gibson is without question the Ducks’ biggest name and the team could bring in some major pieces to help those rebuilding efforts if they decide to part with their star backstop. But what other team has the return assets to pull off such a big move?
Sabres Could Realistically Afford Gibson
There are two problems facing any team that would attempt to trade for Gibson. For starters, it would take quite a package in return to get the Ducks to realistically consider an offer. A high-end prospect and one (or potentially two) early round draft picks would likely be needed at minimum. Secondly, the proposing team would need to have the available salary cap space to assume his $6.4 million per-year hit. The Sabres have both of these.
After trading away Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel to the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights respectively in 2021, the Sabres simultaneously cleared out nearly one quarter of their payroll and acquired a plethora of selections for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft. Thanks to the moves, the Sabres own three first round picks in the draft- their own (ninth), the Golden Knights’ (16th) and the Panthers’ (28th). The team could easily ship one (or maybe even two) of those to Anaheim to make a deal happen.
Additionally, the Sabres have a plethora of available salary cap space thanks to the trades. After Eichel was traded in November, the team had to acquire the rights to the retired Johnny Boychuk from the New York Islanders in order to be cap compliant and earlier this month took on Ben Bishop’s contract from the Dallas Stars to avoid similar complications. The Sabres currently have more than $30 million in available salary cap space, meaning the team could easily take on Gibson’s contract and still have plenty of room to spare.
Sabres Can’t Decide On UPL
Furthering the Sabres’ good chances at a trade is the team’s stacked prospect pool, as Buffalo’s minor league system is currently populated with numerous impressive young talents, including but not limited to the likes of Jack Quinn, John-Joseph Peterka, Isak Rosen and Devon Levi. The team is unlikely to be willing to part with any of them, but it would be necessary to land Gibson and Anaheim could easily ask for any in exchange. The biggest potential centerpiece of a trade with the Ducks, however, would more than likely be the Sabres’ top goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
Since being taken in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Draft, Luukkonen has become one of the most hyped prospects in Sabres history, with fans hoping that maybe he will be the one who finally stabilizes the team’s rocky goaltending situation. Despite this, the Sabres seem undecided on what they want his role with the team to be. Though many deem him ready to be in the NHL full-time, they have yet to pull the trigger and he’s been limited to just two call-up runs in each of the last two seasons (though the second may have lasted much longer had he not been lost to injury).
With an opening in goal this year, the opportunity for Luukkonen to become at least one of the Sabres’ top two goaltenders is available. If the team decides to go with other options yet again and return him to the American Hockey League, it may just be better to move on from the Finn entirely. Though he’s struggled a bit with staying healthy, he has proven he can play in the NHL and could develop into a legitimate star if given the right guidance. If the Sabres don’t want him to be their guy going forward, they need to capitalize on his potential and trade him away for a big return. Moving him to the Ducks in exchange for Gibson would be a perfect opportunity to do that.
Should Sabres Make a Trade?
The Sabres haven’t had consistent goaltending since Ryan Miller was traded to the St. Louis Blues almost a decade ago. Since then, the team has tried to establish numerous new players in the position, but all have failed for reasons ranging from frequent injuries to inconsistency. Add the disastrous past two seasons in that department to the mix and it’s been embarrassing all around for the franchise.
The fact of the matter is that the Sabres simply can’t afford to be held back by their issues in net any further and a solution must be found. If general manager Kevyn Adams doesn’t trust Luukkonen, then he’ll need to seek a solution elsewhere and that will almost certainly lead to a trade or a free agent signing. Gibson has denied the trade request rumors, but he’d be as ideal a candidate as could be to fix Buffalo’s long-running goaltending woes. With the 2022 NHL Entry Draft looming, the possibilities are fascinating. Fans and analysts alike will have to hold their breath as they await the outcome.