It was a whirlwind of a weekend for Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres as Buffalo’s GM maneuvered to acquire a new starting goaltender, a legitimate top-six forward and a potential franchise defining talent with the first three picks at his disposal.
The selection of Jack Eichel was all but guaranteed the moment the Oilers card was pulled during the draft lottery. But trading for Robin Lehner, David Legwand, Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn was hardly an expectation. The new acquisitions, coupled with this week’s signings, set the stage to push Buffalo’s rebuild forward significantly.
In January I wrote about the arsenal of assets Murray had at his disposal. At that time Murray held five of the first 60 picks in the draft along with a boatload of prospects at various levels of development. Today his roster is drastically altered. O’Reilly, Kane and Eichel are set to redefine the team’s top-six while Zach Bogosian and Robin Lehner will be vital pieces on the backend. Murray’s moves at the draft table completed a vital step of the rebuild and should push the Sabres firmly on the path back to competitiveness.
Murray’s clever mushrooms comment added a bit or humor to his post-draft availability, but the response wasn’t necessarily out of left field. Had any fan been told the team would turn the 2nd, 21st, 25th and 31st picks into Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Robin Lehner and Ryan O’Reilly, they would’ve done a backflip. Although there was criticism over the price paid, I don’t fully agree with that assertion.
The 21st pick, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko and Ryan O’Reilly had made the rounds of Sabres Nation in so many trade proposals I assume that most phones just autocorrect the full offer once some people start typing. After dealing what was expected to be the most valuable piece of any O’Reilly deal for Lehner, I assumed any deal for the center was busted. In fact, the O’Reilly deal may be the most impressive move Murray has made to this point in his tenure. Unloading a player who wasn’t going to re-sign in a package that didn’t include a first for O’Reilly is a clear win for Murray in my book.
Another point to consider was that the pick and Zadorov were the only true losses the Sabres experienced in the transaction. Grigroenko had been flirting with the KHL and was unlikely to sign any RFA tender sent his way. He wasn’t coming back to Buffalo, just as Brendan Lemieux wasn’t going to sign in Buffalo prior to his inclusion in the Kane trade. Both share the distinction of trade chips who held very little future value to the Sabres yet each helped land a big fish.
J.T. Compher remains a valuable prospect, however, he was completely expendable given the scope of the deal. Compher could be penciled in as a third line center or RW once he broke into the league but not much higher. With Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons, Hudson Fasching, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste in the organization, Compher’s road to an NHL roster spot was long. Add O’Reilly to the equation and one of those RWs becomes completely expendable. In this case, Compher was the casualty.
Acquiring O’Reilly brings in a phenomenal player who has proven to be a 200-foot contributor with plenty of tread left on his tires. While he’s hardly a carbon copy, O’Reilly is eerily reminiscent of another two-way center who came to Buffalo after a stay in the Rockies.
As Dan Bylsma and Murray noted, O’Reilly provides the Sabres flexibility and some shelter. He can slot in as Buffalo’s first center while Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart grow. He can take on tough assignments instead of saddling the two rookies with those tough minutes. When the pair of second-overall picks are ready for a step up, O’Reilly can continue to serve as a shutdown centerman not unlike Ryan Kesler or, dare I say, Patrice Bergeron.
The forgotten piece of this deal, Jamie McGinn, is certainly no slouch. While he likely slots into a suddenly crowded bottom six, he represents a portion of an overnight change to Buffalo’s third and fourth lines.
At one point this offseason I wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Nic Deslauriers, Tim Schaller, Cody McCormick and a free agent to be named later would be filling out Buffalo’s fourth line this season. Now there’s a chance that Deslauriers will be joined by Marcus Foligno and David Legwand on the bottom unit while McGinn, Brian Gionta and Johan Larsson will potentially mix with Matt Moulson or even Zemgus Girgensons on the third line.
Even acquiring David Legwand may wind up serving more than as a favor to Murray’s uncle Brian and a cap floor acquisition. While Legwand is a shadow of the player who toiled in Nashville for most of his career, he should complement the current leadership group well. Legwand’s advanced statistics are quite favorable and in the right role he won’t be a complete afterthought in the final year of his deal.
Still, the deal for Legwand and Lehner was costly. Given how the goalie market shook out, it is difficult to justify using a first round pick to snag Lehner and a veteran contract like Legwand’s – even if he stands to contribute more than some may expect.
There were pros to choosing Lehner over the rest of the bunch. His age not only provides contract control, but it ensures that he will be part of the team’s success as the core develops. There is no fear of him hitting free agency while the rest of the core is still growing; he will be part of the big picture for the organization. He also has, arguably, the best pedigree of the available goaltenders while also having the deepest NHL resume of just over 82 games.
Does that justify spending a first round pick? No. But it’s not as if he’s a castoff with no upside. He may actually hold the most upside of any goalie who changed hands this weekend. Additionally, Paul Hamilton (I think) made the point that with both the 21st and 31st picks gone in the O’Reilly and Lehner deals, they almost become interchangeable from the Buffalo perspective as the Murray landed both of his top targets.
The marked improvements to both the top and bottom six doesn’t mean the Sabres are suddenly a playoff contender. Even if Lehner regains his pre-2013-14 form there is a long way to go. Murray will need to remain active in free agency to reinforce his blueline and potentially find a right winger for the top six.
What we witnessed this weekend was the next steps towards competitiveness. In fact, I’d argue that we witnessed many steps, not just one. Buffalo’s third line today would have been the team’s first line in the spring. The blueline thinned out a bit, but the roster reflects that of a team on the rise, that ought to help attract free agents beginning on Wednesday. Those reinforcements should ensure that unit remains stout.
Lastly, Murray’s pipeline hasn’t been stripped bare. There are still promising prospects growing in the AHL, NCAA and junior ranks while the Sabres still hold five picks in the first three rounds of next year’s draft, should they choose to return to the trade market.
This weekend offered Sabres a great deal of hope. Jack Eichel is officially on board and he won’t be here alone. Tim Murray capitalized on the opportunity to leverage his assets for NHL talent and that should be reflected in the win column this season.