Now that the season is officially over for the Buffalo Sabres we can fully shift into offseason mode. The unfortunate part is the offseason may last for six months or longer this year, but I digress.
Jason Botterill will back as general manager of the team and in his fourth offseason, he needs to finally put the work in to fix the problem at forward. Since he took the job in 2017, the Sabres have been searching for depth to put around their top players. Outside of the acquisition of Jeff Skinner and the emergence of Victor Olofsson, he’s added no impact forwards to the roster.
He doesn’t necessarily have a ton of cap flexibility after he re-signs his restricted free agents, so the trade market is the likely path he’ll need to head down to find improvements for his roster.
One team that seems like an ideal trade partner is the San Jose Sharks. They’re coming off one of the worst seasons in a long time and don’t have a first-round pick in the top five to show for it. That pick belongs to the Ottawa Senators from the Erik Karlsson trade.
They have a lot of money tied up into aging players and would like to retool on the fly to quickly become a Stanley Cup Contender due to their small window. Kevin Kurz of The Athletic wrote a 9-step plan for the Sharks to be a playoff team again a few weeks ago. In this outline, he mentioned moving a few defensemen and forwards to help turn the team around.
Two forwards on that roster should be of interest to the team. One is a player Kurz mentioned that they should move in their article and the other was one he didn’t mention.
The player he didn’t mention as someone they should look to explore the trade market on is Tomas Hertl. The Czech center would fill the gaping hole at second-line center the Sabres have been looking to fill for two years now. The catch here is that it may be extremely difficult to pry to the 26-year-old forward out of San Jose. They believe he’s a key part of their roster moving forward and management doesn’t have a lot of interest in moving him.
So, why mention him?
Well, the reason is that I’ve heard from multiple team sources that the Sabres are quite interested in him and will try to convince the Sharks to consider a trade during the offseason. Part of their plan is to use their 2020 first-round pick to entice the Sharks, who as I mentioned, do not have a first-rounder this year at the top of the draft (have a late first from Tampa Bay). If the pick is not in the top three, the Sabres will look to use it as a trade chip.
Hertl is a solid scoring center that is also good in his end of the ice. He’d give the Sabres a 1-2 punch down the middle they haven’t had since Ryan O’Reilly was still around. Having said that, I wouldn’t be so keen to use their 2020 first-round pick in this trade scenario.
Although Hertl is a great player, there are some concerns. First, he’s coming off his second major knee injury. He had surgery on a torn MCL and ACL he suffered in January. Back in 2013, he was out for a little over a month with damage to his PCL and MCL in his knee.
He’s only 26-years-old, but it may take him at least a year to get back to the player he was. That brings us to his contract. Hertl only has two more years remaining on his current deal that carries a $5.625 million cap hit. After that deal expires he’ll be eligible to be an unrestricted free agent.
So, if he takes a year to get back to his normal level, the Sabres could only get one good year out of that trade. Of course, they could attempt to re-sign him, but it doesn’t give them the long-term certainty like acquiring a cost-controlled restricted free agent would.
The player that perhaps makes the most sense for the Sabres to pursue in trade discussions with the Sharks is Kevin Labanc. The 24-year-old winger took a step back in production this year after a career-high in goals and points during the 2018-19 season. Although his production went down, his on-ice impacts improved in both the Evolving Hockey’s RAPM model and Micah McCurdy’s individual impacts.
Labanc is a solid middle-six winger that is going to max out around 20 goals a year but generates offense when he’s on the ice. His 5 on 5 offensive impacts are something the Sabres could use in their lineup. He grades out as one of the best players on the Sharks in even-strength offense in the twins’ expected goals above replacement model (xGAR).
His playmaking ability was something that helped him score 56 points last season. However, his primary shot assists were down this year compared to last season, which contributed to his assists being down.
He went from 10.63 primary shot assists per 60 minutes at 5 on 5 in Corey Sznajder’s tracking data to 7.11 this past season. His primary linemates (Joe Thornton and Evander Kane) didn’t change, so you have to wonder if this due to the switch in coaching staff in San Jose or something else. This is worth noting because he’s not going to score a lot, therefore you want to be able to rely on his primary shot contributions being a factor in him generating offense.
If the Sharks do move a defenseman off their roster, as Kurz suggests in his article above, sending a player like Brandon Montour to the Sharks in exchange for Labanc could make sense. Both are cost-controlled restricted free agents that would be decent options on the salary cap for both clubs.
The Sabres have plenty of time to sit back here and put together a plan to improve the roster in a make or break year for Jason Botterill. They need to show significant improvement next year or it’s unlikely the Sabres renew Botterill’s contract after the conclusion of the 2020-21 season.