The roller coaster ride the Sabres have been on this season hit another high point as the team rolled into their bye week. Despite falling to Chicago 5-1 and failing to get much help from the out-of-town scoreboard, the Sabres crawled within two points of a playoff spot on the eve of their bye week.
Sunday’s aftermath pushed the Sabres to a four point deficit, but their current state is a far cry from when they were fighting just to stay out of the Eastern Conference basement. Buffalo’s pre bye-week push has likely created a bit of a pickle for Tim Murray as his club is now far closer to buyer than seller status for next week’s trade deadline.
Buffalo’s narrow margin to the playoffs will erode over the next five days but they won’t be completely out of a playoff spot when they return with a road trip out west. They’ll be close enough to be a threat but just far enough to question if making a run is realistic, thus creating a difficult decision on selling expiring assets, let alone anyone else.
Even if the Sabres hadn’t crept back into the playoff picture, I couldn’t have seen Murray simply selling off his UFAs without bringing any bodies back the other way. The Sabres aren’t in the same boat as the Avalanche or Coyotes and continuing to make progress towards the league’s contenders is of far more importance. However, they’re not in a position to hold onto their expiring contracts and try to bring in rentals for a playoff push either.
What I’m hoping to see from Murray is something of a transitional stance come March 1. Move on from the expiring UFAs who you want to maximize value for but also make moves which bring back players who can contribute both this season and long-term. As the blueline is the most glaring weak point on the team, that’s certainly where I’d expect Murray to focus his attention on any hockey trade.
The best opportunity to swing a proper hockey trade would be to capitalize on Evander Kane’s hot streak. What to do with Kane has become the biggest question lingering over the Sabres as the deadline approaches. Is it worthwhile to move Kane given how well he’s played for the Sabres this season? Is Kane’s play an aberration that Murray needs to cash in on? Is there even a deal available that brings back a defenseman capable of playing top pair minutes?
There are a lot of moving parts at work when it comes to Kane as his contract status also plays a role in any decisions about parlaying his play into more assets or holding onto him as a piece for the future. The simple answer here is that you only move Kane for a deal you can’t turn down. A true number one or two defenseman or an enviable package of assets are probably the only offers that move the needle in this case.
I don’t think there’s any dispute that if Kane’s current form can net the Sabres a defenseman that can serve in the 1-3 role on the team that they should make the trade. I have doubts that such a deal could be agreed upon by next Wednesday and that whatever Murray is offered does enough to convince him that moving away from a power forward like Kane is a good decision.
The market may force any significant deals into the summer months when there is more cap flexibility but I don’t think it’s out of the question to expect Murray to bring in at least one body for his blueline simply because he may wind up trading away two defensemen at the deadline. What I’m curious to see is if Murray makes a relatively minor move for a pending restricted free agent or a lower priced player who may otherwise be exposed for expansion by his current club. Perhaps a player who ultimately fills a third pair role but can step into the top-four if need be. That’s not the move that will solve the team’s problems on the backend, but it would be a step in the right direction.
If the deadline passed and Murray had moved his UFAs for picks in the second or third rounds while also finding a trade as detailed above – to bring in a younger defenseman capable of filling a 4-6 role – I’d be fairly pleased with his moves at the deadline. A more unrealistic stance would be to expect Murray to make a big splash and flip Kane for a top pair defender but I just don’t know if the stars are aligned for such a deal, and that’s okay.
The Sabres probably aren’t a playoff team but they’re inching ever closer to that distinction. A smart deadline where Murray acquires a player (or players) who can help today and long-term will signify the next step towards becoming a true contender.