This will certainly be an exciting offseason as the Buffalo Sabres finally will look to turn a corner. Among searching for a new head coach, help in goal and likely drafting Jack Eichel, the team will also look to add a top-six forward to the mix. As it currently stands, next year’s top lines look something like this:
Evander Kane – Jack Eichel – Tyler Ennis
Matt Moulson – Zemgus Girgensons – X
The line combinations can be mixed and matched, but those are the Sabres top forwards at the moment. Let’s look at who can fill the remaining spot.
Before looking outside, let’s first have a look at candidates currently wearing blue and gold. Two players who finished strong at the end of the season were up and comer Johan Larsson and team captain Brian Gionta. In the final 15 games, Gionta scored six goals and tallied 10 assists. Larsson scored five times and notched eight assists in his final 19 outings, making tremendous strides in his development.
The real wildcard, however, is Sam Reinhart. He’ll go into camp competing for a roster spot. If he earns a spot it’ll be because he’s proven he’s ready to be a top-six forward. If that’s not the case, it doesn’t make much sense having him play on the third or fourth line. He won’t get enough ice time to continue his development and his game doesn’t fit with a third or fourth line checking and grinding sort of role.
If he does make the leap out of training camp, he’d likely fill the second-line center role and Girgensons could slide to the wing because of his versatility.
All things considered, it’s likely the Sabres will want to add some outside help to the lineup.
The Sabres are heading into the offseason with plenty of cap space, meaning they have the money to make free agent acquisitions. As has become the trend, this year’s class is rather underwhelming, but here are a few options.
Chris Stewart: There’s been some clamors to bring Stewart back to Buffalo, after dealing him at the deadline. He’s a big power
forward who’d be a welcome addition to any lineup. He showed what he can do when in the right situation, tallying 11 points after being dealt to the Minnesota Wild.
Michael Frolik: Frolik would bring Stanley Cup winning experience to a very young roster. The last two seasons, he’s been one of the Winnipeg Jets most dependable forwards, posting back-to-back 40+ point seasons.
Joel Ward: Like Stewart, Ward is still busy competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He’s played well under Barry Trotz’s system and has proven to be a good compliment to elite forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin.
Justin Williams: Williams is another player who carries with him a championship pedigree. He’s a solid two-way player who could help the Sabres improve in multiple areas.
While the Sabres certainly have the assets to make a splash in free agency, there’s no big time difference makers available among the crop of forwards. Tim Murray has proven to be aggressive and will be looking to make a big splash.
That leaves us with the most likely scenario – a trade. Murray has already hinted that he’d like to cash in the Sabres second first-round pick for an NHL-ready player. Think: someone of the same ilk as Kane; a young, experienced forward that still has plenty of upside. Along with that first-round pick, the Sabres have a deep pool of prospects Murray could tap into. Here are some of the players who have surfaced in trade talks.
Ryan O’Reilly: O’Reilly trade buzz has been going on for quite some time. Look for that to boil over this offseason. O’Reilly is just the type of player Murray is looking for. He’s young (24 years old), never stops competing and is sound defensively. It’s likely he’s at the top of Murray’s wish list.
Patrick Sharp: The Chicago Blackhawks could be one of several teams facing cap difficulties this summer. That would make a team like the Sabres with lots of cap space an ideal sparring partner. Perhaps Murray could coax a guy like Sharp out of Chicago. The Sabres in return could eat a bad contract.
Chris Kunitz: Another team against the cap are the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kunitz would come with the offensive punch the Sabres desperately need. But, would Kunitz be the same player without Sidney Crosby?
T.J. Oshie: After yet another first round exit, there could be some shakeups coming in St. Louis. Oshie was involved in previous Blues trade rumors. Imagine uniting the American shootout hero with Eichel, the heir apparent to the USA hockey thrown. That would be a deadly tandem.
Taylor Hall: Another player bandied about in trade speculation has been Taylor Hall. Now that the Edmonton Oilers are likely
adding Connor McDavid to the fold, that makes for a crowded group of forwards. Therefore, the Oilers could look to move Hall for some defensive help. Would Murray dangle one of the Sabres young blue liners? Hall would mesh well with the Sabres young crop of forwards.
Phil Kessel: Anyone who hasn’t heard any Phil Kessel trade rumors or any of the other hoopla surrounding the forward just isn’t paying attention. He’s a guy who would clearly benefit from a change of scenery. His dynamic scoring touch would be welcomed with open arms in Buffalo.
Loui Ericsson: Another team in transition are the Boston Bruins. After failing to make the playoffs, the Bruins could look to get younger while freeing up cap space. If a player such as Ericsson was made available, he’d be a nice fit to the Sabres lineup and could come at a much fairer price compared to other forwards who may be getting shopped around.
These are just some of the names that could pop up this offseason. Who would you like to see the Sabres add this summer?
As an American based in Amsterdam, Joe provides a unique hockey insight, bringing a global perspective to the game. Joe has several years of experience covering the game on both a domestic and international level, including being credentialed for multiple World and World Junior Championships.