Could First Round Exits Offer Sabres a Trade Partner?

The startling reality that faces the Sabres after yet another season without the playoffs is the club needs yet another round of big roster changes after their maneuvering over the past two summers has gone for naught.

Jason Botterill and Phil Housley’s first year saw ten new faces brought to Buffalo. They were just shy of repeating that figure again this season. While it’s not out of the question that the team they inherited was already heading to the basement before the pair stepped in. The franchise was already suffering in the wake of below average drafting and owned a handful of bad contracts while lacking depth. That they wound up finishing worse than Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma’s final year is perhaps more of an inevitability than a surprise. Regardless, Housley and Botterill will own the results of the last two seasons. It will all rest on Botterill’s feet and it remains to be seen whether he’ll be around to see the team climb back to respectability.

That leaves him will the difficult task of overhauling his roster for the third-straight summer. Last year’s overhaul brought only a minute improvement in the standings, buoyed by the 10-game win streak but destroyed by the January-to-April collapse. Does he have another trick up his sleeve, or will Botterill be resigned to a more conventional path to improvement?

Botterill’s best opportunity for unearthing talent at discount prices may come from targeting the teams run out of the first round of the playoffs. Teams like Pittsburgh who were frustrated at their early exit, or the Jets and Lightning whose cap situations will likely require trades to be made. Between tight cap situations and disappointing exits, there could be room for the Sabres to pounce.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Jim Rutherford has come to be known for his willingness to tinker with his roster with big and small moves alike. Even before being swept by the Islanders, Rutherford was expected to be active this summer. Rumors have only heated up since falling in four-straight.

Names like Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin have found their way to the rumor mill and the offseason is barely two weeks old in Pittsburgh. Malkin and Letang aren’t exactly the type of players the Sabres will be looking for. Not to say Malkin wouldn’t help the Sabres, but the price it would take to acquire him likely rules him out as a realistic target. But there are others on the Penguins roster who might help fill out the holes that dot Buffalo’s roster.

Brian Dumoulin

Dumoulin isn’t really a viable trade target. He’s arguably Pittsburgh’s best defenseman and was labeled as untouchable by Josh Yohe of The Athletic. I list him here simply as a pie-in-the-sky option should Rutherford be swayed into a blockbuster with his former protégé.

Dumoulin would slide in nicely behind Rasmus Dahlin on the left side, giving the Sabres a tremendous one-two punch to build the rest of the defense corps around. He’s had a positive impact on his teammates in each full season he’s played and while leading the Penguins in even strength ice time this year. He sported impressive numbers in surface level metrics (52.69% CF) and as you boiled down deeper. It’s also worth noting that he spent most of his time paired with Kris Letang and the duo combined for a 62.6% GF%, a sign that Dumoulin could be an ideal partner for Brandon Montour.

But he would cost a boatload to acquire, assuming they have any appetite to trade him at all. Some might even argue trying to acquire another strong left handed defenseman would be something of a luxury for the Sabres, given their vast needs elsewhere on the roster.

Olli Maatta

Knowing that Dumoulin is likely a non-starter, Olli Maatta might be a more attainable asset for the Sabres to pursue. He’s been floated as someone the Pens would be more comfortable dealing and his age and cap hit fit within the scope of what the Sabres have been targeting. Maatta has had some durability issues and his on-ice impacts aren’t as strong, making it a little harder to pencil him into Buffalo’s lineup.

The injury factor is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. If you’re confident he can put his spotty history behind him, you’ll feel okay about acquiring him. But a defenseman who’s only hit 70-plus games twice in six years will probably turn off a lot of people. We’ve seen how Zach Bogosian has struggled with his injury history; do you want to go down that path again?

The other rub with Maatta is figuring out what type of player you’re getting. His surface level numbers on a pretty good team are just okay. He’s floated between 49 and 52% Corsi share for most of his career but he hasn’t been a positive player relative to his teammates since 2015. His goals for percentage was solid this year but his scoring chances for and against weren’t as strong. So, there’s a little Jekyll and Hyde at play here depending on which stats you favor. He has a reasonable cap hit ($4.083m) for three more years and he fits Buffalo’s model but does he move the needle?

Nick Bjugstad

Bjugstad an interesting case from a Sabres perspective. He’s still relatively young and with two more years on his contract ($4.1m hit), he falls within the scope of player the Sabres are looking for. He also is the type of guy you wish Botterill had acquired when things started to deteriorate in December.

His production has been spotty and maybe not to the level you’d hope the Sabres chase in a center to fill in between Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt. He hit a career high in games played (82), assists (30) and points (49) last year and he’s only broken the 20-goal mark once in his career. He’s hovered in that 15-20 goal and 35-50 point neighborhood for the most part, so you know what you’re getting in him. He’s a positive possession player who would certainly solidify their depth at center with the added flexibility to slide to the wing if needed. Like with Maatta, the question is whether or not he moves the needle enough.

Bryan Rust

Rust is signed for one more year and $500,000 less than Bjugstad’s deal that expires in 2021, but he doesn’t offer the flexibility of playing center. Rust is a terrific winger who would bolster Buffalo’s middle six and his production has increased in each of the last three seasons. However, Sidney Crosby was his most common linemate this season. For those reticent about acquiring another winger who made his hay playing alongside a superstar, I hear you.

His price will be hard to pin down as well. He’s been a quality contributor for the Pens, setting a career high in goals this year. But those 18 goals aren’t going to blow anyone’s doors off. He’s not going to make a serious case to be a big-time, top-six winger. Conor Sheary would have been a good comparable had his price not been driven down by taking Matt Hunwick’s salary. Maybe that means the asking price on Rust would be a second round pick. Perhaps a second rounder and a B-prospect. Both seem fair given his age, contract and production.

Dominik Simon

Simon just wrapped up his first full NHL season after splitting time the last few years. He’s only making $750,000 for another year and remains a restricted free agent. His fancy stats are tremendous and while I doubt he has the overall skill to climb much higher in the lineup than a third line role, he’d make a terrific addition to Buffalo’s bottom six. If you’re swapping him for Zemgus Girgensons in your lineup you’re probably coming away better for it. I can’t imagine he’d be an expensive acquisition either. Certainly someone to consider as they try to mine talent for the bottom six.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Julien BriesBrois said he wouldn’t be blowing up his roster in the wake of their first-round exit. A wise claim given the juggernaut the Bolts were. But it is a shame he won’t be doing anything drastic. Personally, I think Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov are real problems and the Bolts should ship them to Buffalo for pennies on the dollar.

The problem facing BriesBrois is two-fold. Tampa’s continued development of star power means they have contracts up for renewal with a host of quality players in the middle of their own extensions. All of that money is pushing Tampa ever closer to the salary cap. So he’s going to need to be creative.

I’m aware that the Sabres and Bolts have already been linked in a potential Rasmus Ristolainen swap. If the return from Tampa is right I think it could be a boon for the Sabres, as capitalizing on the abundant talent on Tampa’s roster could be the solution to their depth problems. The debate over Ristolainen’s effectiveness is best left for another time and I don’t think he’s the key to a deal with the Lightning. But he could tip the scales in Buffalo’s favor.

JT Miller

Miller is the one player on Tampa’s roster who I feel is most likely to move. He doesn’t have any trade or movement protection on his contract and his cap hit is north of $5 million. Even as a player who can shift well between center and wing, Tampa can easily fill his deployment with a number of other players on their roster.

I imagine it would be a painful deal for Tampa to make. Miller was a key piece of the Ryan McDonagh trade and while his salary would give them plenty of wiggle room to extend the likes of Brayden Point, he’s on a pretty team-friendly deal that expires in four years. Injecting a 26-year-old center who just missed the 50-point plateau in what’s been regarded as a down year would solve a lot of problems in the middle of Buffalo’s lineup.

Alex Killorn/Ondrej Palat

Despite having no trade protection, both Killorn and Palat have been mentioned by the likes of Bob McKenzie, Elliotte Friedman as players likely to be targeted by Tampa to clear cap. They’re both making enough money that Tampa would gain vital cap space by dealing them and they’re each talented enough to give the Sabres a much needed upgrade at forward.

Killorn has been the picture of consistency for nearly his entire career but at 29 years old and with four more years on his contract, you’re going to be playing with fire in terms of his long-term contributions. Palat isn’t enjoying the same magic he did when he was one-third of The Triplets line but he too has remained a positive contributor despite lacking the flashier offensive numbers he boasted earlier in his career. Like Killorn, Palat is inching closer to the dreaded 30th birthday and now he’s two years removed from his last 50-point season.

As an additional cap consideration, I think one of these two would be an intriguing pick up for the Sabres. Killorn in particular. He’s hovered at 40 points in every full NHL season he’s played and his baseline advanced metrics are strong. Even though his contract takes him to age 33, you could feel pretty good about the player you’d be getting for Buffalo’s middle or bottom six and I’m sure he’d be a good addition to the locker room as well, for what it’s worth. I wouldn’t be too excited if they were at the center of a deal with the Sabres, tying him to the likes of JT Miller or one of the other flashier names below and you’re in business.

Anthony Cirelli

I’ve seen Cirelli’s name floated by various people as someone the Sabres should target but I don’t think there’s too much to indicate the Lightning would have any interest in parting ways with him. He has another year left on his entry level deal and he’s quickly become an analytics darling.

Perhaps the pitch is that Tampa isn’t going to be able to pay everybody and Cirelli is the penance for the Sabres taking a heavier cap hit off their hands. That probably means Ryan Callahan’s contract. If Cirelli is truly available he should be at the top of Botterill’s to-do list. Every GM’s to-do list, really. I just doubt Tampa goes down that path without exhausting every other option they have. With effective players like Miller, Killorn and Palat, I think they’ll find a taker before needing to sacrifice Cirelli.

Ryan Callahan

Callahan’s deal is the one Tampa most needs to part ways with in order to clear space for Point’s extension and any other business they wish to conduct. There’s a good chance next year is his last and he’s a shadow of the player he once was. I have a hard time finding a spot for him on Buffalo’s roster but he’s the price the Sabres would likely need to pay in order to pull one of their big fish.

Tyler Johnson

Of all the terrific players on Tampa’s roster, Johnson has to be one of the quietest producers of the bunch. He’s overshadowed by Kucherov, Stamkos and Point but he went about his business anc collected 29 goals this season. Ho-hum. I’m curious to know if Johnson is even a player the Lightning would want to part ways with given there are other candidates who probably wouldn’t hurt as much to part ways with. I’d loop him in with Killorn and Palat as a player whose age (29) and contract don’t quite jive with the Sabres model (five more years at $5 million). But his production remains consistent and if he was acquired alongside another, younger asset (think Miller) you’d probably feel pretty good about your haul.

Nashville Predators

Counting the Predators as a team looking to make a change after their first round exit might depend on you who read. Maybe you saw this article which would lead you to believe big changes are coming.  But the Predators aren’t due for any difficult contract negotiations this summer and Roman Josi is the only big name they’ll need to handle next summer. They’re low on cap space but aside from deadline pickups Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds, they’re not in dire need to fill any holes left by free agency.

Where they run into trouble is if they want to make any serious additions. That would require some cap and roster gymnastics which is where a team like the Sabres could step in. Nashville’s roster is awfully complete and there aren’t too many guys that are obvious candidates to poach, even if Poile is feeling extra desperate.

Mikael Grandlund

Granlund was a personal favorite of mine at the deadline and he didn’t adapt all that well to Nashville upon his arrival, potting five points and only one goal in 16 games. If there’s any sense of buyer’s remorse from Poile, the Sabres might be able to grab the dynamic center on a discount.

He’d be a terrific addition to the middle of Buffalo’s forward corps. He’s not going to garner too many Selke votes – though he grabbed a few in 2017 – so he won’t make you forget about Ryan O’Reilly any time soon. But he’s been a consistent 50-60 point player and he’s the exact type of player who could have buoyed Buffalo’s offensive depth as the season slipped away last year.

The rub on Granlund is that he only has a year left on his contract and he’ll be 28 when the season ends. Consistently trading for pending UFAs doesn’t strike me as a recipe for success, especially when his next contract would take the Sabres into the end of the age curve they’ve been trying to avoid.

Craig Smith

You can apply most of Granlund’s attributes to Smith. One year left on his deal and flirting with the wrong side of 30. His baseline possession metrics have been great for a long time and his production is a step below that of Granlund’s. Smith at $4.25m and Granlund at $5.75 are two guys who Poile could ship out if he’s hoping to shuffle his roster once more. Both he and Granlund likely represent short-term fixes as opposed to long-term solutions but could be worth monitoring depending how the market shapes up.

PK Subban

Subban is a little like Malkin in that he pops up in trade rumors almost every summer. If the Preds are looking to shake things up his talent and salary ($9m) checks both boxes. Depending who you read, dealing him would clear them of a headache as well. Like Malking, Subban doesn’t strike me as someone who is right for the Sabres right now. The Predators will be looking for a king’s ransom and taking on a $9 million cap hit, even if it’s only for three years, doesn’t strike me as the type of business Botterill is looking to conduct. His cap hit is big enough that it would hinder Buffalo’s choices when it came to filling other holes on the roster and whatever manner of picks and prospects they’d need to surrender for him would leave the Sabres even more shorthanded. Even a one-for-one swap of him and Ristolainen leaves many of the same holes you have if Ristolainen isn’t moved but with less cap room to maneuver.

Kyle Turris

No thank you, please.

Winnipeg Jets

The Jets may be facing a tougher cap crunch than the Lightning but with fewer contracts to shed to clear the space they need. Mathieu Perreault would offer some much needed relief as would Dmitry Kulikov, but otherwise the Jets are looking at 14 expiring contracts with only a few players who are obvious candidates to walk.

That leaves a tough situation for extending Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Jacob Trouba. The Jets will have to test the trade market in order to clear space.

Jacob Trouba

I’ve built Trouba’s availability into a fantasy so great I can only be disappointed by the end result. Of course, I did much of the same with Brandon Montour and the Sabres grabbed him. So, fingers crossed.

Chris Johnston was on the Steve Dangle Podcast last week and e dropped a host of big scoops during the show (I highly recommend listening). Among the tidbits he provided was his opinion that Trouba won’t be back in Winnipeg. Something that’s been rumored given their tumultuous history in negotiating deals.

As far as partners for Rasmus Dahlin go, I can think of few others who would excite me as much as Trouba. His advanced metrics have yo-yoed a bit so he’s not exactly a slam dunk, but he’s young, talented and can get written in next to Dahlin in pen for the next number of years.  He’ll cost a pretty penny to acquire but perhaps taking on Perreault’s contract and knowing his history with Winnipeg could make him a hair cheaper than he would otherwise be.

Nikolaj Ehlers

If Trouba is my favorite Jet, Ehlers is my second favorite. Third if you count Kyle Connor but he’s not going anywhere. I’m surprised Ehlers hasn’t gotten as much publicity as a potential cap casualty but it strikes me that he’d be a worthy target for the Jets to consider moving with Laine and Connor poised to get big raises. Three terrific scoring wingers are better than two, but if there’s an odd man out in the group I’d have to assume it’s Ehlers.

If that’s the case, Winnipeg’s loss could be Buffalo’s gain. Even while missing 20 games this season, he still tipped the 20-goal plateau and turned in back-to-back 60-pont seasons prior to this one. With or without Jeff Skinner, Ehlers would be an ideal winger for Jack Eichel and would provide the Sabres with another fast, lethal scorer in the top six.

Mathieu Perreault

He fills the Ryan Callahan role for the Jets at 31 years old and two more years at $4.125 on his contract. Perreault has remained a quality contributor despite getting leapfrogged by the various other talents that dot Winnipeg’s roster. He posted 15 goals and 30 points this year and that was a downturn compared to the last few for him. I think he’d be very easy to handle for two more years at a fairly reasonable cap hit. The last thing you want is to litter your bottom six with albatross contracts but he can still contribute and won’t be in your hair long enough to become a real headache. Plus, if he nets you a cheaper price on Ehlers or Trouba you’d be happier for it.

Adam Lowry

Someone from Winnipeg’s rock-solid bottom-six is probably going to be playing elsewhere come October. Perreault seems like a safe bet and as a UFA, Brandon Tanev will probably get a decent raise to try on some new colors. Andrew Copp has grown into an analytics darling and will garner plenty of chatter as the Jets look to retool salary. However, Lowry may be the more attainable piece of that group. Tanev is the easiest to acquire as a UFA but Lowry comes at a controlled cost with two more years at $2.9m while offering similarly impressive underlying numbers as his linemates.

The Sabres don’t have an abundance of open roster spots in their bottom six. Even if some of the fans’ least favorite players move on. Lowry would be an upgrade for the Sabres over just about anyone they rolled out this season – a familiar refrain when it comes to upgrading the bottom of their lineup. It’s always spooky to wind up with too many big cap hits in the bottom six but Lowry is probably cheap enough and a strong enough upgrad to justify the investment.

Jack Roslovic

If you’re still bent out of shape over the Evander Kane trade, you’ll know Roslovic’s name as the player Winnipeg picked with the first rounder the Sabres sent their way. He’s come up in trade rumors a few times this past year and while the first time it was surrounding trade deadline upgrades, he’s back in the rumor mill as a potential casualty in their numbers game. He’s a young, speedy forward who could fill in at either center or wing and he still has another year on his entry level contract to boot.

I struggled to understand why he was falling out of Winnipeg’s plans when his name came up at the deadline and I feel similarly now. Perhaps if they opt to keep Andrew Copp, Roslovic would become an excess asset. He may not represent an answer to some of Buffalo’s more pressing questions, but the former first rounder would be a welcome addition both in terms of salary and talent. Where he fits would be a tough question as he just completed his first full NHL season after shuttling last year. How much more he can improve on his nine goal, 24-point season would be a question mark if he was acquired.

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