The state of Sabres fans’ collective psyche sure has taken a turn for the worse since the team posted a 4-6-3 record in the month of December. Following the infamous 10-game winning-streak that propelled Buffalo as high as second place in the Atlantic Division, they now cling to a two-point cushion with the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens hot on their heels for the final wild card spot. As the boys in blue-and-gold continue to slide in the standings, one glaring issue remains as the most apparent reason for their fall.
A complete and utter absence of secondary scoring.
For a short time, the Sabres were able to get by on the skill that the top line of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart provided. Even when the team was winning, analytically savvy fans were quick to point out that their current model of success wasn’t sustainable, and that the they would inevitably regress back toward the mean. Well, it happened. The November streak certainly appears to have been an aberration, and fans are stuck searching for answers.
As a result of the Sabres’ continued futility to produce offense beyond the first line (something that will likely be exacerbated even further for as long as Eichel remains out of the lineup with an upper-body injury), fans have turned their sights toward a potential trade. As you can imagine (and have probably experienced firsthand), the takes have ranged anywhere from even-keeled and logical, to completely delusional.
Given the Sabres’ early triumphs this season, expectations have changed to an extent. That little taste of success through the first couple months warped some perceptions of where the organization stands and what the wisest course of action is at this point. The goal here is to take a step back, and rationally analyze what is realistic to expect in the short-term, and the best course of action (or perhaps inaction) to take in the pursuit of sustained success.
First things first. Let’s take a moment to understand why the calls for Jason Botterill to “make a move now” are being vastly over-simplified, especially at this point in the season.
Typically, in order for a team to be willing to trade a roster player for a “future piece” (i.e. a draft pick or prospect), they need to believe (at least to an extent) that they aren’t contenders this season. That fact alone eliminates a majority of potential dance partners on the trade market at this point in time. In order to expand the range of possibilities, a team would have to be willing to make a “hockey trade” that sends an immediate contributor(s) both ways (similar to the Coyotes-Blackhawks trade that took place last month, and the Oilers trades from this past weekend, regardless of how lopsided they might look).
The Sabres aren’t really in a position to make that type of deal. Other general managers aren’t going to take our garbage in exchange for their gold. The roster isn’t strong enough in any one particular area so much so that they can afford to weaken it in order to address a more pressing area of need. With all of that being said, your scope is now reduced to teams like Ottawa, Detroit, Los Angeles, Arizona and maybe St. Louis, who might all be keen on selling assets in what appears to be a lost season.
Once you determine a list of possible sellers, then you have to address two important factors. First off, you must determine whether or not those teams have a player that the Sabres should be interested in acquiring. You must then, in the Sabres case, find a player who is locked-down to a manageable cap-hit beyond this season. After specific, logical (and you know, realistic) targets are established, then it the question of what it would take to acquire them comes into play.
If you’re of the school of thought that the Sabres would be best-suited retaining all four of their first-round picks over the next two years, then you’re stuck scouring the rosters of just a few teams in search of a player with term, who would provide an immediate spark, and would cost less than a first-round pick. Even if Botterill were keen on losing one of his firsts, the scope expands only marginally as of right now.
But what about a player like Kevin Hayes? As a pending unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season, the Rangers could trade him now, but why would they? In all likelihood, he’ll be the most attractive rental option at the trade deadline. Similar to what Botterill attempted to do with Evander Kane last season, New York might be inclined to hold out and see if someone is willing to pay a premium in March.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that Jeff Gorton is eager to make a deal right now and it would involve one of the Sabres’ first round picks (and probably a little extra). The only way that it makes sense for the Sabres is if an extension (in principle) has been agreed to ahead of time. Otherwise, they run the risk of Hayes testing the open market this summer, and essentially renting a player at a point in time where a playoff spot is far from guaranteed.
It’s not unheard of for a player to re-sign with a team that traded for them during a contract year. Kane is a perfect example of that. But is that a risk the Sabres should be willing to take at this point? Probably not.
With that in mind, who are some of the few players whom Botterill could reasonably target and obtain as of right this second? Minnesota Wild center, Charlie Coyle is a popular name that has been tossed around. With one more year on his current contract (which carries a very reasonable cap hit of $3.2 million), he might be an ideal target.
There is still a problem.
The Wild are a mere four points out of a wild card spot as of today and they have two games in hand. Would they be willing to trade their second line center for futures at this point? Perhaps not.
Now, there are still viable options, but only a few. Matt Duchene could stand to be rescued from the black hole of ineptitude that is the Ottawa Senators organization, but who knows if Pierre Dorion would be willing to deal him within the division. Brayden Schenn is another somewhat viable name, but again, the Blues would have to be resigned to the thought that the season is already lost.
In short, those calling for Botterill to make a trade right this second, should perhaps pump the brakes. Unless you’re willing to lose a player like Rasmus Ristolainen, a favorable deal for a legitimate scoring threat might be very difficult to come by. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising if Botterill waited until the trade deadline (when the range of teams that are “selling” has been expanded), or perhaps even the draft to make improvements to his roster.
With a significant amount of cap money coming off the books after this season, and some enticing draft day assets, he’ll almost certainly make a move at some point. It’s hard to imagine him using all four first round picks given his team’s lack of immediate depth, but right now might not be the best time to optimize value for said assets.
This season is, and always was, a development year. Most fans pegged the Sabres to hover around .500. Botterill will be patient, even if it means waiting until the offseason to address the Sabres’ secondary scoring woes. He’ll wait for the right deal, like all good general managers do. For now, we should put the 2018-19 campaign back into perspective and hope that the current group finds a way to qualify for the playoffs, or that the right deal will present itself at some point before the team is out of the playoff picture.
Hitting the panic button now is simply not in the team’s best long-term interest. Let the pretenders separate themselves from the contenders and wait for the market to open up a bit before making a reactionary deal. At the mid-way point of the season, there just aren’t enough viable, favorable trade options, no matter how badly fans want to see the Sabres’ seven-year playoff drought come to a merciful conclusion.