Although we’re not even two months into the season, the trade deadline is just over a month away. Where does each team stand and what moves should they be looking to make? We continue our look around the league with the Buffalo Sabres.
No team has received more media scrutiny this season than the Buffalo Sabres. The team is floundering yet again despite adding the top free agent forward in Taylor Hall and acquiring veteran center Eric Staal. Not only have Hall and Staal disappointed, but very few members of the team have exceeded or even met expectations this season. With failing veterans, stalled youngsters, and a number of expiring contracts, the Sabres are stuck and appear primed for a fire sale and resumed focus on rebuilding.
According to a number of sources, almost anyone on the Sabres could be made available. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Buffalo is “wide open” for business and The Athletic included four Sabres on their Trade Deadline Big Board. It all sounds very exciting to the other 30 teams and their fans, doesn’t it? Well, don’t get your hopes too high for major moves by Buffalo. Given the constraints of an NHL trade market impacted by a flat salary cap as well as real-life financial struggles, not to mention the restrictions on Canadian teams due to COVID-19 border policies, making trades this year is no easy feat. Trading a player like Jack Eichel in-season seems nearly impossible, even if the Sabres wanted to move him which is unlikely. Add in that rookie GM Kevyn Adams is new to the job and trying to build connections in a quiet market while trying to avoid being taken advantage of, and the Sabres suddenly look like a team that might end up playing it safe. Does Adams really want to move the likes of Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, both of whom are among the productive minority in Buffalo, when the odds of winning such a move seem slim? Does he want to potentially overreact to the frustrations of Jeff Skinner and give away major assets to move his contract? Adams has a number of contracts expiring after this year and next that he can move without much risk of it coming back to bite him. Expect that “wide open” means he’s willing to move any amount of those players, but won’t be too keen to touch anyone else who the team may still be able to build around.
6-14-3, .326, 8th in East Division
Deadline Cap Space
$410,962 in full-season cap space, 0/3 retention slots used, 44/50 contracts used per CapFriendly.
Upcoming Draft Picks
2021: BUF 1st, BUF 2nd, BUF 4th, BUF 6th, BUF 7th
2022: BUF 1st, BUF 2nd, BUF 3rd, BUF 4th, BUF 6th, BUF 7th
Hall of course stands out as the top trade chip for the Sabres if you assume that the likes of Eichel, Reinhart, Olofsson, and Rasmus Dahlin are not going anywhere (a safe assumption despite the whispers). The former Hart Trophy winner may not be enjoying a strong season, but he is a known commodity who can play a top-six role for any team in the league. Hall has expressed some interest in re-signing with Buffalo, but without any evidence that he is a fit and with a ways to go in their rebuild, retaining the 29-year-old Hall on a heavy price tag makes little sense. The trouble with trading him though is a potential lack of suitors who can actually afford his $8MM cap hit. A lack of demand could impact what Buffalo is able to receive in a deal, but they should still end up with a nice package. Anything is better than letting him walk for free this summer.
Staal too could see his time in Buffalo come to a quick end. The veteran center is well-respected across the league and brings solid two-way play and postseason experience. While he has lost a step, that won’t stop contenders from seeing him as a worthwhile depth addition.
On defense, Brandon Montour is absolutely on the block. The puck-moving defenseman is headed for free agency and the Sabres have made it known that they are open to renting him out. Montour has not produced as they had hoped and is no longer in their long-term plans, so Buffalo has no reason not to trade the 26-year-old defenseman. Given his offensive upside, his ability to play either side of the blue line, and his palatable $3.85MM cap hit, Montour should be easy to move. Sadly, Jake McCabe also would have been easy to move and would have returned a prime package as arguably the best left-handed defenseman on a trade deadline seller. However, his season is over due to injury and the Sabres will lose out on his trade value.
Even with Montour and McCabe out of the way this off-season, the Sabres still face a potential expansion conundrum on defense. Should Buffalo choose to protect seven forwards and three defensemen, Dahlin is a lock but it leaves only two spots to split between top-four blue liners Rasmus Ristolainen and Colin Miller and young Henri Jokiharju. The Sabres could choose to move one of the three rather than lose them for nothing to the Seattle Kraken. Ristolainen had long been a fixture on the rumor mill, but those talks have cooled significantly since last season. Do the Sabres finally move the talented defenseman, especially as his stock has risen this season? Ristolainen only has one season remaining on his contract and could be tempted to pursue a more talented team in free agency after playing exclusively for Buffalo thus far in his pro career. Miller also has just one year remaining on his deal and comes with a lesser price tag than Ristolainen, albeit with a less complete game as well. Jokijarju, 21, is not necessarily safe either; the young rearguard has not met expectations thus far in his time with the Sabres but he does have impressive upside.
In net, Buffalo will see both members of their NHL tandem hit the open market this summer barring an extension. The Sabres may be well-served to extend 27-year-old Linus Ullmark, but if the feeling isn’t mutual then they should move the net minder while he can still return value. If Ullmark is healthy, he could be a major trade chip for the Sabres. Veteran Carter Hutton is less likely to move given his struggles and his $2.75MM cap hit, but Buffalo will certainly make him available.
Others to Watch For: F Curtis Lazar ($800K, one year remaining), F Tobias Rieder ($700K, UFA), F Riley Sheahan ($700K, UFA), D Matt Irwin ($700K, UFA)
1) Draft Picks – Sabres fans rightfully want their team to be better and they want them to be better sooner rather than later. However, that isn’t easy to do. A rookie GM with few impact players and little cap space doesn’t have the means to immediately upgrade his roster. This team is headed toward a long, arduous rebuild. What makes accepting that reality even more difficult is that the Sabres do not even have their full complement of draft picks to build upon. Missing a third and a fifth this year and a fifth next year, Buffalo is in the unfortunate position of needing to add talent to their pipeline and don’t even have the complete means to do so. The goal for Adams and company at the deadline should be not only to recoup their missing picks but to add other high-value picks as well.
2) Prospects – If the Sabres are unable to add valuable future prospects in the form of high draft picks, they need to target current top prospects instead. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler recently ranked Buffalo’s pipeline as 15th-best in the NHL, an unacceptable position for a team that is supposed to be rebuilding. The Sabres need to move from middle-of-the-pack toward the top of the NHL’s prospect rankings if they want to speed up their rebuild. A projected top-four defenseman and center depth should be the specific targets of their aim to add youth.