Buffalo Sabres fans have been patient enough. And I’m not talking about the past 11 seasons; I’m simply talking about this season. For weeks we have collectively held our tongues, remained tight-lipped, and sat on it. “It” being the prospect of the Buffalo Sabres pushing for a playoff berth in 2023. The pre-season sentiment did not have the Buffalo faithful frothing at the mouth for a post-season appearance, but the mid-season mark has the froth frothing, and there’s no turning back.
The early season tenuity has dissolved, and previously quiet Buffalo fans are starting to make some noise, as the Sabres are flirting, heavily, with a wild card spot. Buffalo, with 42 points, currently sits 4 points behind the Penguins for the final wild card slot, with the Isles sitting in between at 46 points. The Red Wings and Senators are also hanging around. The race is already tight, and it will continue to be a nail biter throughout the latter half of the regular season, especially with teams getting healthy.
General Manager Kevyn Adams has said that he does not want to derail the long-term plan with any risky moves; fair enough. However, I think most fans can agree that this roster, organization, and city have earned a look, and something tells me that Kevyn Adams knows that. He has built a culture using a mindful and communicative approach, and you best believe that he is in touch with what those players feel, what fans are saying, and what the overall dynamic is. The city of Buffalo has gone through a lot in the past year, and the recent blizzard combined with the Damar Hamlin event in Cincinnati have weighed heavily on everyone. Buffalo is in the spotlight and Adams will make moves to show that locker room that he believes in them and is pleased with what they have done thus far.
So, what moves can Kevyn Adams make that won’t threaten his already impressive rebuild? The answer to that lies in what he and his staff feel is a need. The top 6 is a lock, and while the kid line has plateaued a bit, there is no reason to tamper with it. The bottom 6 was a toss-up a few weeks ago, however players like Jost, Krebs, and Mittelstadt have begun to find a groove. Casey Mittelstadt is one of the most debated players in recent Sabres history, with fans split on whether he is a part of the future or an outright bust. No matter your opinion on it, there are 3 truths currently associated with Casey Mittelstadt:
1. He is a big part of the locker room and has forged meaningful friendships with many of his teammates - an easy thing to scoff at or overlook, but Kevyn Adams and Don Granato value this much more than traditional GMs and coaches;
2. He does not have much trade value, as his statistical output has been mediocre;
3. He is not the player we were all told he would be - we can discuss this until the cows come home, but Casey is still developing and discovering who he is as a hockey player.
Considering these 3 truths, I find it hard to believe that he will be traded this year. The Adams/Granato tandem practices patience, and I believe that they believe Casey has more to offer and that it will simply take a bit more time to get it out of him.
With that being said, it would be foolish to think that he is “off limits” for a trade, but there probably aren’t many playoff locks looking for a Casey Mittelstadt right now; it is also unlikely that rebuilding teams feel strongly about him.
On the back end, Buffalo could use some help on defense. Injuries have plagued guys like Jokiharju and Lyubushkin, and we all saw what happened when Mattias Samuelsson was out (yikes). This is an area of need, and lots of folks have been calling for a big move to get a top-4 right hander. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and if the right deal for the right player with the right contract situation presents itself, Kevyn Adams will pull the trigger.
Goaltender has also been much discussed in the past 2-3 years. Ironically, that situation appears to be, dare I say, falling into place. Kevyn Adams is subtle in his ballsy-ness; he bet on one of Comrie or UPL to step up this season, and with Comrie’s injury, UPL has performed well.
Let’s lay out some assumptions/caveats that will be in place for three possible trade scenarios that will push the Sabres into playoff contention:
1. Casey Mittelstadt will not be traded
2. Buffalo will not trade for a goalie
3. Buffalo will trade Olofsson in order to level-up their middle 6
4. Buffalo will not trade for Jakub Chychrun; Arizona is asking for TWO 1st round picks PLUS a solid roster player or prospect and more, plus they don’t need to trade him – not gonna happen.
Scenario #1: Buffalo trades Victor Olofsson, Jacob Bryson, a 2023 2nd round pick, and a 2024 2nd round pick to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for JT Miller and Luke Schenn
This is a big transaction, and it gives both teams a few things that they really need. The Sabres receive key pieces to push for the playoffs and compete while Vancouver is given the opportunity to build around their franchise players (Horvat, Pettersson, OEL, and Hughes) and gain much-needed cap relief.
Canucks Perspective: JT Miller is signed through 2027-28 ($8MM AAV starting in 2024), and while many folks think Bo Horvat is on the move, this scenario has the Canucks not finding the return they want for him and throwing a curveball here with Miller. Vancouver is sitting 8 points back from the final wildcard spot in the West and they are beginning to turn their heads to the 2023 draft.
The Canucks have ZERO cap space and need to chip away at the cap hole that they are in; this trade may sting initially, but the 2024-and-beyond cap space allows Vancouver to extend Horvat at the number he wants (his team recently rejected an alleged $8MM AAV offer); if you are building a team and you have Bo Horvat, you keep Bo Horvat.
Draft capital in a deep draft is a good thing, and with this trade Vancouver will have their own 1st rounder, TWO 2nd rounders, their own 3rd rounder, and TWO 4th rounders in 2023, and get a 2024 2nd round pick back that they traded away to Chicago for Riley Stillman; Buffalo has THREE 2nd round picks in this upcoming draft, and are willing to part with their own, and another in 2024, in order to get this deal done, while Vancouver can add talent to their pipeline without impacting their cap hit.
The Canucks receive a player that will fit in really well with their franchise talent in Elias Pettersson; Olofsson is a sniper who can produce in a top-6 role, and he will replace Miller on the wing, reap the rewards of regular power play time, and find a home.
Bryson, signed for $1.85MM AAV through 2024, provides depth on the back end and will replace Luke Schenn, who is a UFA after this year.
Sabres Perspective: Buffalo has a deep pipeline, however it will be 2+ years before a lot of that talent is ready for the NHL. Kevyn Adams wants a balanced scenario where he and Don Granato can evaluate all players, which means that they need to be given the chance to develop; in short, a log jam at the NHL level will cause problems for the Sabres. Players like Ostland, Rosen, Bloom, and Rousek will “cook” for the next 2 seasons, while guys like Kulich, Savoie, and Johnson may get a look at the NHL this year or next. This is why Kevyn Adams is willing to bring in a player like Miller and part with his 2023 and 2024 2nd round picks.
Miller provides a level of skill at the 3rd line center position that allows Don Granato to do what he really wants; roll three lines of fast, skilled, tenacious forwards that will press you and exhaust you. That is the game Buffalo plays, and if you watch them regularly, you can see them trying to create this. JT Miller is perfect for this role (32P in 38GP this season), as he can play any forward position and will get regular time at 3C with Jost and Mittelstadt on his wing.
Schenn is the antidote to what most Sabres fans know is coming in the playoffs, big boy hockey. This player is currently sitting at 6th in all-time hits in NHL history, ahead of Chris Neil, Dion Phaneuf, and Zdeno Chara – sign me up, baby! He also blocks a lot of shots. Bryson has been a bit underwhelming this season and I think he needs a change of scenery. He is a smooth skater who can move the puck; pair him up with one of the talented defenders on that Vancouver roster for a consistent mid-level d-man.
Scenario #2: Buffalo trades a 2023 1st round pick, a 2024 2nd round pick, Victor Olofsson, rights to Ryan Johnson, and rights to Erik Portillo to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Erik Karlsson
Two teams shoot for the fences in opposite directions here. The Sabres add a bona fide stud to their back end while showing trust in the development of their current forward group, and the Sharks lean into their poor performance this year by acquiring draft capital and freeing up cap space to go after building blocks in free agency.
Sharks Perspective: Erik Karlsson is having a banner year; why would San Jose trade that away? Because they are wasting it and need to make a change. The Sharks are 13 points out of a wild card spot, sitting at 32 points, and on the Escalator to Nowhere. It’s not happening for them this season, and while it is reasonable to think that they could get back on track next year, they have issues at all three levels and need to spread the wealth.
San Jose losses their top defenseman, and future HOFer Erik Karlsson, who is signed through 2026-27 at $11.5MM AAV. With just under $1MM in cap space, San Jose will need to make room for free agency and a possible Timo Meier extension (or the cap hit associated with whomever they receive in exchange for him if he is traded), and this deal frees up too much cap space with a fair and reasonable return to pass up.
The loss on the back end is a big hit, but the Sharks receive multiple pieces that have a solid chance of being productive NHL players, and possibly high-end performers. Johnson is a slick skater and projects to be a top-4 defenseman who will most likely see the NHL in 2023-24. He’s no Erik Karlsson, but he does bring a similar game.
Portillo is a legitimate goalie prospect and San Jose is looking for an answer in net for the future – they will most likely pursue a free agent goalie this offseason, so the cap space will help, but Portillo could be the long-term solution for them.
Olofsson adds power play talent and production up front; again, he is a player who can give you .75 points per game in a top 6 role, and I can see the Sharks trying him with Hertl or Couture.
The big chunk of San Jose’s return here is the 1st round pick in 2023, a stacked draft that will give San Jose the opportunity to have TWO 1st round picks and add some potent talent to their system, while earning a little treat in the 2nd round of 2024.
Sabres Perspective: This is an aggressive move, but it manages to give Buffalo an ace up their sleeve with a top-2 defenseman who would fit like a glove and give the Sabres not just a push to make the playoffs this year but turn them into a threat. No, this wouldn’t put them in immediate Cup contention but it sure does down the line.
Buffalo is finally able to move forward and gain clarity with their entire development path by getting rid of two big question marks in Johnson and Portillo. Solid talent that many feel will pull the rug out from Buffalo when it comes time to sign after college. This move puts them in a desirable market on a team that will turn around in 1-2 seasons to compete.
Karlsson paired with any of Samuelsson, Power, or Dahlin is a problem for the rest of the league. The cap implications are real, but Buffalo is one of very few teams in the NHL that can make this move without mortgaging their future. With over $33MM in cap space and upcoming extensions for guys like Cozens, Dahlin and Power, Kevyn Adams throws a dart and lands an absolute king on the blue line, giving Buffalo the most formidable back end in the league, by far.
Parting with Olofsson does not hurt Buffalo, as they already have drafted his replacement, in Juri Kulich. This also gives Victor the opportunity to truly fit in with a team. He has been a pleasure, especially as a 7th round pick, but he just does not fit in with this roster at this point in time.
It is tough to part with a 2023 1st round pick, but the THREE 2023 2nd rounders make this deal possible. Kevyn Adams may turn those 2nd rounders into a 1st after doing this deal, but he is willing to take a shot in a year where his 1st rounder will not get him in the top 10.
Scenario #3: Buffalo trades Victor Olofsson and a 2023 1st round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Boone Jenner
Let’s be honest; Columbus is tragic right now. The tank is in full swing as Jarmo Kekalainen leans into the futility and starts to prepare for the draft. Columbus is 3rd last in goals for, sitting in 31st place with 26 points and a legitimate shot at the Bedard lottery. They have some nice talent in the pipeline and will certainly be a threat in a few years. But for now, this team is truly terrible, as Sabres fans saw first-hand when Buffalo absolutely goosed this team for 9 goals against a few months back. Woof.
Columbus perspective: Boone Jenner has been a model captain and an absolute beast for this team. He is the type of player you want in your locker room, especially if you are headed to the playoffs. Unfortunately for Columbus, they are not only missing the playoffs, but apparently sprinting in the opposite direction at light speed. But don’t let their abysmal performance this year fool you; this team has some strong players in Gaudreau, Laine, and Boqvist, along with plenty of high-end talent in the pipeline. Guys like Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, Cole Sillinger, Emil Bemstrom, Luca Del Bel Belluz, David Jiricek, and Denton Mateychuk have tremendous potential. Combine that with their trajectory to land in the top-3 in the 2023 draft with their pick and another 1st rounder from Buffalo, and you should see this team make some noise in 2024.
Make way for Connor Bedard! Jarmo Kekalainen loves to “go for it” and he will do whatever he needs to in order to scootch in front of Chicago for this generational player; the tank will be worth it with plenty of elite talent in the 1st and 2nd rounds.
Boone Jenner is currently on IR with a broken finger and projects to return soon, and his loss will be difficult on a team that has no direction; Johnny Gaudreau is being paid to produce points and be a leader - time to shine, Johnny Hockey.
Victor Olofsson and Patrik Laine provide 2 layers of snipery for this team, and the Jackets will make room for Olofsson and give him the opportunity he needs in the top 6.
Buffalo Perspective: The Sabres trade for Kyle Okposo’s eventual replacement and a point-producing grit king; Boone Jenner is a certified “hockey guy” and the blue-collar work ethic he brings will be an instant hit in Buffalo. Yes, the Sabres have plenty of leadership in Tuch, Cozens, Okposo, Samuelsson, and Dahlin, but Boone Jenner brings you another dimension of experience and toughness – Buffalo needs that if they intend on making their playoff run worth it.
Signed for a friendly $3.75MM AAV through 2025-26, the Jenner contract is a steal for a team like Buffalo from a cap perspective.
Jenner (22P in 32GP) will slot in as a centerman on the 3rd line and offer a much-needed level-up to the middle of the forward group. Many believe that the 3rd line is the key to unlocking a playoff push, and Jenner in between Mittelstadt and Jost presents a very annoying challenge for opponents, as Jost and Mittelstadt are starting to lean into their roles as skilled forecheckers who can draw penalties, lock down opposing lines, and create chances down low.
Any of these players would be a welcome sight to Sabres fans, and while there may be a pie-in-the-sky element at play, the trade deadline always brings surprises. Kevyn Adams is not afraid to make moves, and he has put the up-front work in to give himself flexibility. Perhaps he has another big move in mind for down the line, but we all know him to be opportunistic and the cap space he has to play with provides him with a tremendous opportunity.
The second half of the season is meaningful for the first time in quite a while, and Buffalo fans are collectively feeling the good vibes. Do we trust the process? Yes. Do we think we can stick to the process and push for the playoffs this season? You bet we do.