Thirty-six games into the 2014-2015 NHL season, the Buffalo Sabres have earned a record of 14-19-3. After a woeful start where Buffalo found itself in last place for a good portion of the time, the Sabres have recently climbed out of the basement going 5-4-1 in their last ten games. Despite a few winning stretches, the Sabres still find themselves in twenty-sixth place overall in the NHL.
The Sabres are in an interesting position as the club approaches the half-way mark of the 2014-2015 season. The Sabres find themselves just ten points out of the NHL’s basement, a position currently owned by the Edmonton Oilers. At the same time, Buffalo is just eleven points out of the final wild card position in the Eastern Conference which is currently occupied by the Washington Capitals.
Hope abounds for those who want the Sabres to finish in last place for a chance at a top draft choice and for those who want to see the Sabres fight their way into the playoffs. With forty-six games left to play this season, the possibilities of either making the playoffs or finishing in last place are still very realistic. However, if the club fails to meet one of these outcomes then they may find themselves in a difficult spot with their fans.
As the season charges forward, GM Tim Murray will have some decisions to make regarding this season’s class of unrestricted free agents. The ‘ifs and whens’ that Murray will need to consider with regards to trades could have a major impact on Buffalo’s final position in the NHL standings. Murray will need to weigh the pros and cons between maximizing his return on trades and his organizational goals for the on-going rebuild.
According to CapGeek.com, the Sabres will have nine players hit unrestricted free agency at the end of this season. Buffalo will also have four restricted free agents who will be seeking new contracts. This sets the scene for a very interesting trade deadline and offseason in Sabreland. Here is a look at the top five unrestricted free agents on the Sabres’ roster under consideration for dealing ahead of the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline.
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Playing in his sixth NHL campaign, all with Buffalo, Jhonas Enroth is quietly having a good season. Enroth has compiled an 11-11-2 record and his .912 save percentage is in line with his career .913 save percentage numbers. After spending a few years as Ryan Miller’s backup, Enroth has been impressive at times and has made a strong case to be part of Tim Murray’s future plans for the Sabres.
Perhaps Enroth’s biggest value for the Sabres has been his performances during the shootout. Of Buffalo’s fourteen wins, six games were won in the shootout and Enroth was the goaltender for five of these wins. According to NHL.com, Enroth has a .952 save percentage in shootouts where he’s allowed just one goal this season.
Enroth: For me, it's all about keep fighting. Do whatever I can to help the team win. #Sabres
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) December 28, 2014
Enroth’s play this season has not only won over many fans but it has made a strong case for a new contract. However, if a new contract cannot be negotiated it is in the best interest of the organization to broker a trade rather than risk losing Enroth for nothing in unrestricted free agency.
Forward Drew Stafford has had a mixed level of success during his tenure in Buffalo. Stafford is playing in his ninth NHL season after being drafted thirteenth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. In five hundred forty-six career games, Stafford has one hundred forty-one goals and three hundred and seventeen points.
Stafford showed strong potential early in his career. He started playing games for Buffalo during their President’s Trophy winning 2006-2007 season. Stafford has scored twenty or more goals three times in his career but he hasn’t reached twenty goals since the 2011-2012 season.
In recent years Stafford’s production has fallen off as the Buffalo Sabres have struggled. During the last three seasons where he’s appeared in one hundred forty-six games, Stafford has scored just twenty-seven times. He also is a -48 over the last three seasons and currently is a -13 with Buffalo this season.
Stafford does seem more engaged ever since Ted Nolan took over as the Sabres’ head coach. However, the twenty-nine year old needs a change of scenery to see how much he has left in the tank for the remainder of his NHL career. Stafford has just five goals and nineteen points in thirty-three games so far this season.
Stewart came to Buffalo at last season’s deadline along with goaltender Jaroslav Halak, forward William Carrier, a first round pick in 2015 and a conditional third in 2016 in exchange for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. The forward is a former 2006 first round draft selection of the Colorado Avalanche. He arrived in St. Louis in February of 2011 along with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and a conditional second round pick in a trade for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a conditional first round pick.
In four hundred seventeen career games in the NHL, Stewart has one hundred twenty goals and two hundred thirty-seven points. Stewart has struggled to find consistency at the NHL level but when he is on his game he is very difficult to play against. The forward has a six-foot two inch and two hundred thirty-one pound frame that gives him a powerful physical advantage against his opponents.
His lack of consistency has been an issue that has continued to be a factor during his time in Buffalo. Stewart has played in forty games as a member of the Sabres and has just five goals and nine points. Stewart recently was a healthy scratch on a team that is currently ranked in the lower third of the NHL standings. The healthy scratch seems to have helped Stewart though who has contributed since returning to the lineup.
Let's just say Chris Stewart is a wee bit angry about being a scratch. #Sabres
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) December 10, 2014
Stewart will likely be traded sometime before the 2015 NHL trade deadline. His name is mentioned a lot in the rumor mill for good reason. The big forward can provide a strong physical element to a playoff-bound team. For his career, Stewart has five goals and six points in nineteen career NHL playoff games.
Both Sabres’ goaltenders will be unrestricted free agents by the end of this season. When the 2014 deadline saw Buffalo trade away goaltender Ryan Miller, many wondered how the team would replace one of the organization’s top goaltenders. After some wheeling and dealing by GM Tim Murray, the club acquired Michal Neuvirth from the Washington Capitals to help answer this question.
Neuvirth had some decent years in Washington but by the time he was acquired by the Sabres he had fallen out of favor. Despite Buffalo’s difficulties this season, Neuvirth has played well enough to give his club a chance to win when he’s between the pipes. The twenty-six year old has a 3-8-1 record and a .909 save percentage this season.
Jhonas Enroth's save percentage after tonight's game is up to .918. Michal Neuvirth is .920. They're well-peppered too.
— Joe Yerdon (@JoeYerdon) December 10, 2014
He has battled through injury but has managed to string together some impressive efforts so far this season. However, in his last three starts Neuvirth has allowed fourteen goals while facing one hundred and twelve shots during that span. With other goaltenders in Buffalo’s system, GM Tim Murray probably won’t keep both Neuvirth and Enroth so he will need to continue to evaluate his goalie situation and decide who to keep in blue and gold.
Torrey Mitchell was acquired by Buffalo along with two second round draft picks in a trade with the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick at last year’s trade deadline. Interestingly, both Moulson & McCormick found their way back to the Sabres after both hit the unrestricted free agency market this past summer. Mitchell is playing in his seventh NHL season where he has thirty-nine goals and ninety-seven points in four hundred twenty-three career games.
While his numbers are a far cry from jump-off-the-page statistics, Mitchell has provided some intangibles for the Sabres that have proven valuable. In thirty-one games so far this season, Mitchell has three goals and six points. Mitchell has contributed in short-handed situations where he averages more than two minutes per game of ice time on the penalty kill unit.
The veteran forward’s sixteen takeaways is second on the Sabres. He has been physical at times logging twenty-eight hits and he has blocked twenty-three shots on the season. Mitchell has won 45.2% of his faceoffs and has been trusted to take 15.9% of the Sabres’ draws through his thirty-one games played. The forward could bring Buffalo a late round selection at the trade deadline while providing some valuable depth for teams in contention to make a playoff run.
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Tim joined The Hockey Writers in July 2013. He began his tenure with THW by covering the Minnesota Wild and he now writes on the Buffalo Sabres. Tim completed his undergraduate and graduate work at the University at Buffalo. In addition, he is a published historian and a Baltimore Orioles Contributing Writer for LegendsOnDeck.com. Tim’s work for THW has been featured on sites such as Yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @TOHockeyTHW