What a difference two points makes.
If the Sabres had somehow beat the Blackhawks in their final game before their bye week, fans in the 716 would be dancing with unicorns and skipping on rainbows this week. A four-game winning streak? Back-to-back wins over two Western Conference playoff teams? Maybe this enigmatic group of kids and vets might be able to make some magic and do a little damage in the playoffs this year.
Roughly halfway through the second period vs. Chicago, reality swept into KeyBank Center and gave bleeders of Blue and Gold a cold, bracing slap in the face. Four Blackhawks goals in just over 17 minutes and the Sabres were suddenly down 5-1. Say farewell to the unicorns and those precious two points, the 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres are not a playoff team.
The cold, bracing slap in the face may sting for a second, but it allows us to clear our head and take a cold and calculating look at the team as it is currently constructed. Beyond Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe, the Sabres are whisper thin on defense. The most talented player on the roster is still too young to legally buy a beer in this town. Zach Bogosian led the team in short-handed TOI vs. Chicago which may not be a fireable offense in evaluating Dan Bylsma, but certainly doesn’t instill confidence in the decision-making of the current coaching staff.
Tim Murray has never been one to skip on rainbows, so my sense is that he has never suffered any delusions about the current roster. Oddly enough, the decisive loss to the Blackhawks makes his job easier. There is no push from an overly optimistic fanbase to be a buyer at the trade deadline and no calls to trade away assets for a phantom push to the playoffs. Murray can stick to his development plan and focus on building a team that is a Stanley Cup contender over the long term. Some of the most pressing items on the white board in his office:
* Zach Bogosian (5.142 million), Matt Moulson (5 million) and Tyler Ennis (4.6 million) carry onerous cap hits for at least the next two years. Murray will be happy if he can deal one of these guys, absolutely giddy if he can deal two, and will twerk his way down the entire length of Canalside if he can rid the team of all three.
* Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson must be dealt at the trade deadline for the best deal available. Murray should honor Brian Gionta’s wishes to play wherever he wants to for the remainder of this season.
* The Sabres have to trade forward depth and/or draft choices to obtain a top 4 defenseman. Johan Larsson and Zemgus Girgensons are out of the line-up. Justin Bailey and William Carrier have proven they belong on an NHL roster. Alex Nylander, Hudson Fasching, Nicholas Baptiste and Evan Rodrigues are strong prospects that could potentially play up for the Sabres next season. Assuming they re-sign Larsson and Girgenson, that’s 8 players for 5-6 forward spots next season.
Something has to give here. Murray has the ability to overpay for a top defender and the view from here is that he will before the 2017 NHL Entry Draft is over. Given the current price of a top 4 defender and Murray’s willingness to make aggressive moves, be forewarned that this trade will hurt a lot when it’s announced.
* If no reasonable deal for a defender is available, Murray should pursue Karl Alzner if he reaches free agency.
* Marcus Foligno and Robin Lehner have earned 3-4 year contracts.
* Girgensons and Larsson still have nebulous roles on the roster. If it makes sense to Murray, he should offer both players 1-2 year deals.
The next twenty weeks promise to be a vital time in Murray’s development plan for the team. What would you like to see the Sabres accomplish by the time July 15th rolls around on the calendar?