It appears as though fans of the Buffalo Sabres will have to wait yet another year for a playoff appearance. The Sabres, who have not made the postseason since the 2010-11 season, are currently tied for last place in the Eastern Conference with 54 points. Although the team sits just five points out of a wild-card playoff spot, a late season playoff push in an incredibly tight conference would be difficult, to say the least. Unfortunately, the Sabres will likely be on the outside looking in for the sixth consecutive year come April 10.
Being out of the playoff picture, the blue and gold will likely be sellers at the March 1 trade deadline. The team has a number of players on expiring contracts that could be dealt to Stanley Cup-contending teams looking for that one extra piece to strengthen their lineup. One player that may be on the Sabres’ trading block is Brian Gionta, a winger who is in the final year of his contract.
Gionta, a veteran in his 15th NHL season, has great experience and leadership ability — characteristics that will make him a sought after commodity amongst playoff teams come March 1. However, keeping Gionta on the roster may end up be the better option for the Sabres.
Keep the Captain?
Although many teams will likely be calling general manager Tim Murray on or before the deadline in regards to acquiring the Buffalo captain, holding onto the undersized winger could perhaps benefit the team more than any prospect or draft pick could.
Gionta brings leadership to the Sabres’ roster, something they severely lack. The 38-year-old was originally brought into Buffalo in a leadership role — a role he has excelled in. The former Olympian was named team captain just weeks after signing with the team in the summer of 2014, a title he still holds today.
While Gionta has served as a leader to the team’s young core throughout his time in Buffalo, he has also proven that he can be a consistent producer for the team. The Rochester, NY-native finished with over 30 points in each of his first two seasons with the Sabres. The forward has 27 points in 54 games thus far this season and is on pace to finish with over 30 points yet again.
Gionta is a unique player on the Sabres’ roster in that there isn’t a weak part to his game. He can fit in on the first line as easily as he can on the fourth. The veteran can slot in anywhere in the team’s lineup while simultaneously serving as a leader. While Gionta is obviously past his prime, his consistent production and leadership make him a difficult player to replace.
Although a Gionta trade could result in the Sabres acquiring a draft pick or prospect, perhaps what Gionta brings to the team is more valuable than future assets.
Hockey is ultimately a business, though. When business is booming, everybody’s happy and jobs are usually safe. Unfortunately, it’s not booming in Buffalo.
If the Sabres were in a playoff position, there’s no chance that Gionta would find his name in trade talks right now. The team would hold onto the former Stanley Cup champion due to his playoff experience and ability to produce.
The Sabres aren’t in a playoff spot, though, and it looks like the Sabres are going to finish near the league’s basement for the fourth consecutive year. It is for this reason that Gionta is on the trade block.
Ultimately, the main motivation behind a Gionta trade would be to clear cap space. He carries a cap hit of $4.25 million, making him the sixth-highest paid on the roster. Although Gionta’s contract expires at the end of the season, dealing him at the deadline gives the Sabres the cap space to go after a big name. More cap space could result in the Sabres making a play for Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog or Kevin Shattenkirk.
In most cases, something is better than nothing, which is another reason why the Sabres could look to move Gionta. The former 48-goal scorer will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, giving him the ability to walk away from the Sabres organization. While there is a possibility that “Gio” will re-sign with the team that signed him three years ago, there’s also a possibility that he won’t. By dealing Gionta before the deadline, the Sabres guarantee that they at least get something in return for their captain.
If the blue and gold feel like the former New Jersey Devil will leave during free agency, then trading their captain before the deadline is their best option.
What Could Come Back in Return?
At the trade deadline, teams desperate for a deep playoff run will often overpay for veterans they feel will help their team succeed. The Sabres could be on the winning end of one of these deals this year.
While the return for Gionta wouldn’t be as substantial as the return for, say, Evander Kane, it could be decent. Being in the final year of his contract, teams will look at the former Montreal Canadien as a rental.
While teams won’t be offering top prospects or picks, the former third-round draft pick could easily be traded for a mid-round pick. Depending on other deals made on deadline day, acquiring a second-round pick for Gionta isn’t inconceivable.
A roster player would also likely be coming back to Buffalo in any Gionta trade. The winger’s large cap hit isn’t ideal for many playoff teams, as most competitive teams are already pushing the cap. A role player with a cap hit in the $2 million-range, along with a draft pick, is what Buffalo fans should expect in return for Gionta.
Ultimately, Gionta’s fate lies in his hands. The 5-foot 7-inch forward has a modified no-trade clause, and if he doesn’t want to leave Buffalo, he likely won’t have to. However, if he wants to go to a contender, the Sabres should honor his wishes. Although he would be missed, fans in Buffalo would rather watch Gionta lift the Stanley Cup than spend what could be his final year on a losing team.