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The Contingency Plan at Center

If the Sabres do move Ryan O’Reilly they need to have a plan in place to replace some of the void he’ll leave on the roster

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Boston Bruins Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve heard about the rumors involving Buffalo Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly. It’s not an absolute certainty that he’s moved, but where there’s smoke there’s fire.

The important part of any O’Reilly trade is what the Sabres do to replace their number two center. They cannot take a 55 to 60 point player off the roster and not have a plan in place to fill the void he’ll leave on the roster.

Sabres general manager Jason Botterill could grab a centerman back in the deal, but the ideal return in this type of trade is a top-six winger.

If and when O’Reilly has moved the top two centers on the roster will be Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt. Eichel will begin the season at 21-years-old and Mittelstadt will be 19-years-old.

Botterill has a few options in free agency that he can explore, as well as the trade market to fill the need down the middle.

Derek Ryan

One such player is one that I’ve mentioned a few times in previous articles. That’s Carolina Hurricanes center, Derek Ryan. The 31-year-old is set to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

Last season with the Hurricanes he scored 15 goals recorded 38 points in 80 games, which were career highs for him in the NHL. While can play on the power play and the penalty kill, he’s a good even strength scorer. An area the Sabres desperately need to address.

Ryan scored 12 of his 15 goals at even strength last season. For his career, he’s scored 68 percent of his goals and 75 percent of his points at five on five. His strong play at even strength shows up in his possession numbers. Ryan had a 57.1 Corsi and 3.2 relative Corsi last season with Carolina.

If you need even more convincing, Ryan is an excellent face off guy as well. He finished 10th among centers to play at least 25 games with a 56.5 face off winning percentage.

He should come relatively cheap to the Sabres and could be a short-term answer. While players like Sean Malone and Rasmus Asplund develop.

Riley Nash

Another option is the Sabres could explore signing Nash as a third-line center. No, not, Rick. The other Nash that’s a Boston Bruins forward, Riley.

I’m not a huge fan of this option, but something that could draw the Sabres to Nash is his position versatility. He can play the center position, as well as the wing.

The 2007 first-round pick looks like the ultimate buyer beware in this free agent class from the outside looking in. He had a career year this past season with 15 goals and 41 points in 76 games for the Bruins.

His previous best year was during the 2013-14 season with the Hurricanes when he scored 10 goals 24 points in 73 games. The next three years he didn’t score over 10 goals in a season.

The other red flag with Nash’s strong season is his shooting percentage. He shot at a 13.3 percent rate. Entering last season his career shooting percentage was nine percent. Such a drastic jump in shooting percentage usually indicates the type of production we saw last season isn’t sustainable.

While Nash is an option for the Sabres, I would recommend that they look for a replacement elsewhere.

Elias Lindholm

If the Sabres make a deal with the Hurricanes, which has been a strong rumor over the last few weeks. Botterill could target a young player like Elias Lindholm as part of the package in return for O’Reilly.

The 23-year-old Swede scored 16 goals and 44 points in 81 games with Carolina last season. The 2013 first-round pick has scored at least 10 goals in each of the past four seasons. As a top-five pick, Lindholm has yet to hit that potential he was expected to reach.

They’re looking to shake things up with the roster and Lindholm could be a player the Hurricanes use to acquire an impact player. He may not be a top-six center but could fill a nice role as a third line center behind Eichel and Mittelstadt.

The Sabres could explore other options like Toronto Maple Leafs center Tyler Bozak or Winnipeg Jets forward Paul Stastny, as well as other trade options. However, I think the Sabres will stay away from the big name free agents that could get expensive. Especially for a player that’ll ideally be a third line center on the roster.

At the end of the day, the Sabres need to have a plan in place if they do indeed trade O’Reilly. They cannot go into next season with Eichel, Mittelstadt and Evan Rodrigues as the top three centers.

They need a veteran presence on the roster to take some pressure off of Mittelstadt who will be playing his first full pro season.