For what feels like eons, national media members have reported the Buffalo Sabres’ involvement in trade talks around the league. For a fan base that has been subjected to perpetual mediocrity (or worse), trade deadline speculation is often the most exciting time of year.
Buffalo is currently sitting outside of the playoff picture and with the deadline just over a month away, it may be time to start looking at which players on expiring contracts (or otherwise) could garner a return as a rental asset for an aspiring contender. While Jason Botterill probably won’t be able to shed every pending UFA from the ledger before this summer, there are players on the roster who he’d be remiss to let walk for nothing.
This all could change of course if the Sabres pull themselves into the thick of things in the next few weeks. After all, they’ve won three-in-a-row without two of their best offensive threats. Still, with the deadline right around the corner, let’s take a preliminary look at who could garner some value, if the Sabres are indeed sellers.
Some of the players in this section may stick around if the Sabres is willing to work out an extension, but all of them would theoretically have a market for their services, should Botterill make them available.
Topping the list is winger, Conor Sheary. As a veteran player with a couple deep playoff runs (and a Stanley Cup) under his belt from his time in Pittsburgh, he is probably the most marketable “rental player” on the roster. Though he has, at times, been the subject of criticism from the blue-and-gold faithful, his year-by-year production has been consistent (the year as Sidney Crosby’s wingman notwithstanding).
As a middle-six winger in Buffalo, he’s provided some offense (albeit on a very inconsistent, streaky basis), and is metrically sound. He’ll never cost you anything defensively, but he’s also never going to drive possession on his own.
At the end of the day, he’s an underwhelming yet responsible presence. An analytics-savvy general manager might see him as a low-risk fit. A team looking to fortify their forward depth for a deep playoff run could perhaps be convinced to part with a third-round pick for his services, especially if they miss out on a bigger target elsewhere.
On the flip side, Botterill may want to look into an extension for a player he actively pursued via trade two summers ago. If Sheary would agree to a short-term extension at a similar rate as the $3 million he’s currently making, there may be some interest there.
On the back end, Colin Miller is probably the most likely defensive asset to be dealt before the deadline, which is a sentence nobody anticipated reading after the Sabres sent multiple draft picks to the Vegas Golden Knights for him this summer. For some reason, he’s been the most consistent odd-man-out on the Buffalo blue line under Ralph Krueger.
While his play hasn’t been spectacular, his consistent presence in the press box is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s hard to believe that Botterill will get an equal return on his initial draft capital investment, but if Krueger really doesn’t see him as a fit in his system moving forward, the trade deadline might be an ideal time to sell.
An injury-riddled team looking to give themselves a boost could have interest, especially if they didn’t plan on spending high-value assets for a top-six defender. The only potential issue with a Miller trade is his cap hit of $3.875 million which doesn’t expire until summer of 2022.
I’ll preface this next paragraph by saying that the Sabres would probably be wise to extend this player rather than trade him, but not knowing what Botterill’s vision is for the future bottom-six, he must be mentioned here.
For the better part of two seasons, Johan Larsson’s contributions as the team’s fourth-line center have been vastly underappreciated. All season long he has been the Sabres’ xG leader and his work as a defensive possession forward has been one of the few consistently good things about the 2019-20 campaign.
For this exercise, a clever general manager will see Larsson’s impacts and realize just how valuable a player like that could be in a playoff atmosphere where possession battles are the key to series wins. Should Botterill make him available, the acquisition cost probably wouldn’t be too high for a team looking to improve their possession metrics up front heading into the postseason.
In this next section, we’ll take a look at a few guys who might be a little tougher to deal (though certainly not impossible). It’s not as though they’re completely useless assets, but every struggling team has players like this, and the market for their services could be relatively sparse.
From the moment he was acquired via trade with the New York Rangers this past summer, Jimmy Vesey was seen by fans as a potential rental asset if the Sabres were to fall out of contention by the deadline. To be honest, I waffled for a bit as to which section to place him in. Though he is currently on pace to post career-low point totals, his underlying metrics have experienced a modest improvement (they’re still not great overall). His year-over-year isolated even-strength impacts are probably the most intriguing selling point.
Depending on whether or not Botterill would be willing to take a smaller return than he paid, Vesey could be of interest to a fringe team hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with a player who is capable of producing goals in bunches. Barring a big production uptick over the next month, nobody is going to give the Sabres a third-round pick however (which is what they paid initially).
Still, his cap wouldn’t be overly difficult to fit onto another team’s ledger, so if the Buffalo brass is willing to accept something in the neighborhood of a fifth-rounder for him, there’s probably a buyer out there. Nothing Vesey has done in Western New York has warranted talk of a contract extension, so the team should be eager to get some sort of last-ditch return on their investment.
Michael Frolik’ name would raise a few eyebrows in pretty much any other context, given the fact that the Sabres acquired him only two weeks ago. As a pending UFA this summer, the only way he might be a candidate for an extension is if he agrees to a significant pay cut from his current salary of $4.3 million AAV.
In terms of a return, it’s tough to imagine the Sabres doing any better than the fourth-round pick they recently sent to the Calgary Flames in order to obtain him (barring a crazy scoring uptick leading up to the deadline, of course). Any way you slice it, Frolik’s arrival was always sort of a band-aid on a bullet wound up front, and in all honesty, a limp-wristed effort to fortify the team’s offensive ranks in the second half.
Next up is a player who has reportedly been on the trade block for most of the 2019-20 season. It’s been a bit of a rough go for Evan Rodrigues. The new head coach doesn’t seem to be a fan of what he brings to the table (which has left him in the press box for a good chunk of the year), and when he has received opportunities, he isn’t producing points. After being awarded $2 million by an arbitrator this offseason, he’s struggling in what is, by definition, a “prove it” year.
For the past two seasons, Rodrigues has been praised for his underlying metrics. With very strong advanced stats and 25 points in 48 games during the 2017-18 campaign, fans were excited about the then 24-year-old. Unfortunately, his base production had continued to dip despite his xG and possession metrics remaining relatively strong.
At the end of the day, he’s a solid bottom-six player who brings energy and some scoring ability in the right situation. As previously mentioned, reports indicate that he’s been made available, but it doesn’t seem like there is much interest right now. We’ll see if that changes any time before the deadline. Otherwise, the organization will likely end up letting the pending RFA hit the open market.
Rounding out the second tier is a player who has experienced what is probably the most significant nosedive in terms of overall performance. Last season, Carter Hutton was unexceptional. Analytically, his numbers were a sliver below average, but far from terrible.
Leading up to 2019-20, fans were expecting an even split of starting duties between Hutton and Linus Ullmark. Following a handful of exceptional performances to start the season, the 34-year-old has fallen off a cliff posting a .873 save percentage in his past eight starts. His last win came on October 22 against the San Jose Sharks. He’s started eleven times since then, posting a record of 0-7-4.
In terms of GSAx, he ranks near the bottom-third of backup netminders around the league.
With the starting role firmly in Ullmark’s possession, rumor has it that the Sabres have started gauging Hutton’s trade value. It’s hard to believe there’s much of a market for an aging goaltender with another year left on his current $2.75 million AAV contract. Most playoff contenders already have backups who are performing better than Hutton. Compounding on that issue is the fact that very few teams are in a position to absorb his salary, especially for an additional year.
Maybe Botterill can find a deal in the form of a “dollars in, dollars out” scenario, but it would be somewhat of a surprise to see a team part with a future piece of any sort, given how badly Hutton appears to have regressed.
Probably Not Happening
Rounding out our trade bait spectrum are a few players who probably won’t be dealt, but for varying reasons. Of the three assets to follow, one of them is too much of a financial (and performance) burden, one is probably too beloved by the organization, and trading the third would just be a monumentally foolish decision.
Fans raised a collective eyebrow when the Sabres entered training camp with virtually 12 NHL-caliber defensemen. It took the front office half a season before loosening the logjam a little by dealing Marco Scandella to the Montreal Canadiens. Still, veteran incumbents remain, despite alleged efforts being made by the general manager to ship them out.
Trade speculation surrounding Zach Bogosian picked up a little steam when he expressed frustration about being a healthy scratch upon his return from injury. Soon after, there were reports that he had formally requested a trade.
The only problem is that nobody is biting.
The situation is pretty simple. There are only a handful of teams who could even fit his $5.14 million cap hit on their ledger. Even fewer (if any) would have an actual use for him. Despite Bogosian’s claim that he feels like he’s at full-strength, the on ice results say otherwise. He’s no longer a sharp skater, and despite his frustration about not being a top-six regular, there are too many good defensemen on the roster to justify his presence.
Fortunately for the Sabres, his contract is set to expire after the season comes to a close. It would be pretty surprising to see him dealt before that unless Botterill is willing to take salary back, which obviously wouldn’t be an advisable course of action.
Shifting gears toward a defensive asset who is actually tradable, Jake McCabe could probably fetch a decent return. That being said, it seems as though Krueger likes having him, and as one of the team’s alternate captains, there is a leadership element there as well.
Intangibles aside, from a skill standpoint, McCabe’s reputation balances largely on his physicality and non-stop motor. Analytically, he’s made some improvements in Krueger’s system. Though he’s still a tick below break-even in terms of overall impact, he’s still a solid defensive defenseman.
Despite all of this, McCabe is second among Sabres defensemen in average ice time (16:27 at even-strength). With a reasonable cap hit of $2.85 million for next season, there would probably been a significant market. Depending on how the team feels about players like Will Borgen and Jacob Bryson heading into the summer, he could be someone Botterill dangles out there for some much-needed forward help, but don’t expect anything before then.
Last, but certainly not least, is probably the most polarizing player among fans, Sam Reinhart. The blue-and-gold faithful are surprisingly split when it comes to speculating what type of price tag the 24-year-old should demand as a pending RFA.
As arguably the best winger on a team that desperately lacks talent up front, his consistency alone should be enough to convince the Sabres brass that he is deserving of a long-term contract. With 39 points in 47 games this season, he’s on pact to break his career-highs in both goals and points.
Currently, he ranks third among Sabres forwards in both goals, and wins above replacement. Some want to attribute a great deal of that success to his consistent role playing alongside Jack Eichel. Obviously, some of his base statistical production is a result of playing with the Buffalo captain, but the underlying data indicates that Reinhart does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of zone-exits and overall possession on that line.
Whether or not the organization realizes his value remains to be seen. Just two years ago, Botterill elected to sign him to a bridge-deal in lieu of a cheaper, long-term agreement. Reinhart has exceeded his previous levels of scoring production and he’ll probably seek something in the $7 million AAV range.
Botterill cannot create another hole at forward in an attempt to shave a few dollars off his bottom-line. Wingers like Reinhart aren’t easy to obtain. Trading him would make his job of fortifying the team’s scoring depth that much more difficult.
When he was hired, Botterill was frequently lauded as a master of asset management. That skill set has appeared in flashes (i.e. acquiring Henri Jokiharju for Alex Nylander), but a team with its back against the salary cap limit should be on pace to finish well over their current projection of 82-86 points. Flipping expiring assets for futures is the only logical move if Buffalo remains stagnant (or worse) in the standings come mid-February.
The Sabres are without a third-round pick for the next two drafts. That fact shouldn’t be lamented because of the lottery scratcher that mid-round picks represent in the NHL, but those picks could be valuable pot-sweeteners this summer. For that reason, there is no reason not to get whatever draft or future assets you can for veteran anchors who would otherwise join the rest of the mass exodus (hopefully) set to take place on July 1.