Tim Murray will enter the offseason with a pair of pressing items on his to-do list. Get a left handed defender to fill in his top-four and grab a winger (or two) to fill out the top-six.
Somewhat like last summer when Murray was on the hunt for a goaltender, there are a host of options that will be available to him, but maybe not any one singular target fans may expect him to pursue. That’s excluding Steven Stamkos (who is a center) who will be on top of the wishlist for nearly every fan and general manager.
Looking beyond Stamkos, there are a number of players who I personally like as options for Murray to pursue via trade or free agency. Among the players I could see him considering is Jamie McGinn, who could certainly be re-signed after his trial with Anaheim this spring. While I’m unsure if McGinn’s salary demands will align with Murray’s expectation, you can count him as something of an honorable mention on this list.
While the trade route may be the most enticing route for Murray to pursue given Buffalo’s wealth of draft picks and the ability to pare down some of the clogged middle six bodies the team has, there are actually a couple of names who may hit unrestricted free agency I hope Murray considers.
The first is David Backes. He’s coming off a five-year deal that carried a cap hit of $4.5 million. He’s 31 and plays a heavy game – which has led to a pair of Olympic appointments and earning the captaincy in St. Louis. The primary risk here is that you don’t know how many miles he has left in the tank. If he’s signed to a four or five-year deal, there is certainly potential for the final few seasons to be heavy on the pocketbook but thin on the stat sheet.
Additionally, there’s no guarantee that Backes even leaves St. Louis. The Blues took one step towards a shake up last year when they traded TJ Oshie and if management is further disillusioned with another early playoff exit; more change at the top of the lineup could be in order. Not to mention the Blues could use a bit of cap relief. Does hardly means Buffalo and Backes are destined for each other, but he’s still a high-quality, two-way player who would bring a bit more veteran savvy to the young Sabres roster.
The other upcoming UFA who I’d love to see the Sabres chase down is Kyle Okposo. Just 27, he’s ending a backloaded bridge deal that only carried a cap hit of $2.8 million but paid him $4.5 million this season. He’s in line for a raise after three seasons at or above the 20-goal plateau (he scored 18 in 60 games last year) and has experience playing with upper echelon talent. The underlying question with Okposo is whether or not he can take his game to the next level and become a 30-goal man. He’s flirted with the mark (27 in 71 games two years ago) and certainly could benefit from skating on either Ryan O’Reilly or Jack Eichel’s right wing.
What’s enticing to me regarding Okposo is both his consistent production since the 2012-13 lockout and his age. In a “worst case” scenario in which the Sabres offer him a max contract, the deal would expire just ahead of Okposo’s 35th birthday; hardly ideal but not nearly as dangerous as taking a player into his late 30s or early 40s on a cap-heavy deal. Assuming Sam Reinhart will remain a winger for the foreseeable future, a one-two punch of Okposo and Reinhart on the right side through at least 2020 offers quite a bit of talent and stability for Murray and the Sabres.
Beyond the unrestricted market, which will include Mikkel Boedker (no thank you) among others, Murray will need to flex his muscles on the trade market if he wishes to acquire any more top-six talent. I’m hoping to see Murray chase down a pair of wingers for his top two centers to attempt to strengthen the top-end of the roster as he technically still has the hole left by Jamie McGinn left to fill.
The following list of players will include some restricted free agents who could certainly be signed to an offer sheet. However, these players would all need to be acquired via trade as an offer sheet would either just take care of the paperwork for Murray’s counterparts or need to be so overloaded that the Sabres would be hamstrung by their overpayment. The prices on any trade for these players would exist on a sliding scale, so while I won’t be including who or what the Sabres would wind up sacrificing, I’m assuming each deal would include some mix of players, prospects or picks.
Cam Atkinson or Kerby Rychel
Both Blue Jackets have been brought up in rumors or outright requests over the past year. Atkinson, boasts three-straight 20-goal seasons and is on an affordable $3.5 million deal through 2017-18. He’s undersized and typically plays the right wing – so perhaps an Atkinson/Okposo offseason doesn’t make a ton of sense – but he’s been an impressive offensive contributor for the Jackets for some time.
His organizational counterpart, Rychel is a former first round pick who demanded a trade earlier this season. His production at both the NHL and AHL level will leave you wanting and he’s not a player I’m particularly high on. However, he’d likely come cheap, probably cheaper than anyone else on this list. So, from a cost-control standpoint it wouldn’t be a bad thought to add him even after tacking on one or two NHL bodies from other organizations.
From potentially the cheapest to the most expensive player to acquire via trade, Niederreiter is hardly an available asset at this point. He’s likely going to hit 20 goals for the second-straight season and is a restricted free agent next summer. He’s big and popular and probably pretty close to untouchable. However, the Wild are in a bit of cap trouble and they’ve already been linked to dangling Jonas Brodin, who happens to be the exact type of left handed defenseman the Sabres need.
If Murray is already working with his old bargaining partner Chuck Fletcher, perhaps he ups the ante and buys big from the Wild. Instead of sending a significant package for Brodin, maybe there’s a deal to be made in which Murray and Fletcher pull a blockbuster to get the Sabres two items from their wishlist. It’s certainly a long (long, long) shot and I’d hope Murray’s primary focus is on Brodin if/when he’s calling Fletcher.
Already mentioned by a few people as a player the Sabres could consider, Hoffman is arbitration eligible and allegedly on the outs in Ottawa. He’s something of a late bloomer depending on your definition of young and old in the NHL, but his last two seasons will get your attention; 27 goals last year and what previously looked like a pace that would obliterate 30 goals this season (26 through 69 thus far).
Hoffman is in line for a big bump in pay and while his first four professional seasons could raise some flags, he’s emerged as a potent scorer these past two years. Is there a deal to be made that takes a potential headache away from Uncle Bryan?
Mantha is quite a curious case as he played at close to a goal-per-game pace in his final two years of junior and has potted 36 goals in two AHL seasons thus far. However, there were reports of disappointment from the Red Wings camp over his development which could certainly open the door for his departure.
A former first round pick who scored 50 twice in junior (and 21 more this year in the AHL) won’t come cheap. This is especially true from a franchise with a pair of aging stars who may have Mantha penciled in for a more prominent role. There’s something of an unqualified value when it comes to Mantha, as well. As he’s only just gotten his first taste of NHL action, there isn’t a ton to work off of on that portion of his resume. He’s certainly a high-value asset, but there’s also something of a risk-reward proposition given his lack of NHL playing time.
The next time I understand what’s going on in Edmonton will be the first. Their embarrassment of riches and lack of results is well documented. Now there are rumors that everyone not named Connor McDavid will be available come summer. Among those wingers who could be for sale are Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov. Similar to the difference in price I referenced between Rychel and Atkinson, Eberle would be far more difficult to acquire than Yakupov based on most reports.
In addition to carrying the enigmatic tag, Yakupov’s track record at the NHL level isn’t nearly as impressive as many of the others on this list. While he’d be a more affordable option, there are plenty of fans and pundits out there who may also consider him a bust. Eberle has hit 30 goals once, 20 goals five times and fell just short of 20 in his other two seasons (one being lockout shortened). So he has the lethal touch the Sabres could use. He also carries a high price tag.
What makes the Oilers so hard to judge is their general lack of success. If you put Eberle on a stronger club does he flourish or have we already seen the player that he is? The same goes for Yakupov, in a more stable lineup does his blossom into an offensive threat or is he indeed a draft bust? It certainly leaves room for optimism but also makes it much harder to invest in a trade.
Another admitted long shot, Schwartz is set to hit restricted free agency this year and is a key cog in the success of the St. Louis Blues. He flirted with 30 goals last year and despite missing quite a bit of time this year, has scored at a 20 goal pace in the games he’s played in. He’s a big piece of the future in St. Louis. The Blues also happen to be right up against the cap with some tough decisions to make. I would think the only feasible way Schwartz is shipped to Buffalo is if St. Louis simply can’t give him the term he is hoping for out of his third NHL deal. The Sabres would basically need to fall into another Ryan O’Reilly situation in which the contract demands and expectations from both sides simply can’t be reconciled.
I can’t really see a situation in which Tim Murray has enough to offer St. Louis for Schwartz or a situation in which Doug Armstrong is backed into a corner regarding the player. However, as every GM will tell you, calls on players take place all the time. Armstrong traded away a very impressive, young winger last year, perhaps he can be sold on such a prospect yet again.
Buffalo has a handful of wing prospects who will be flirting with NHL usage quite soon. William Carrier, Justin Bailey and Hudson Fasching top the list before considering who Murray selects in the first round of this year’s draft. However, with the hope and expectation that the Sabres need to double down on the progress that has been made this year brings the expectation of NHL ready talent.
Whether that means acquiring one or two (or more) NHL-ready wingers will need to be determined by Tim Murray. But I do expect to see at least one new body acquired this offseason.