When is Jason Botterill going to make a move? That’s the common refrain among hockey fans in Buffalo as the calendar creeps towards January with the Sabres in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Unlike last year, the Sabres have managed to right the ship after their post-win streak regression. They’ve turned in a solid December and sit five points shy of a wild card spot but only one point out of third in the Atlantic coming out of the Christmas break and holiday roster freeze. Like last year, they’re reliant on a single line to produce results, even still they’re firmly in the race at the New Year.
The time for action was prior to the roster freeze. It’s evident the Sabres are in need of help up front. Ideally a center but it’s probably more realistic for them to find a winger capable of buoying their output. They’ve had a surplus of defensemen since July and one of those guys just explicitly asked to be traded.
It’s not unfair to want to see Botterill spring into action. The Sabres have been spinning their wheels for the better part of a decade and frustration over Buffalo’s on-ice success is high. After watching the 2018-19 season circle the drain, you’d understand why fans are antsy to see additional improvements.
There are two threads to follow for Botterill and the Sabres. The first is the cap situation and the surplus on defense. Zach Bogosian has requested a trade and it seems as if Marco Scandella is likely to be traded as well. Without any salary retention, moving the pair accounts for over $9m in cap. The second aspect is just what type of trade might Botterill make in order to actually improve the forward corps.
Part one should be fairly straight forward. The Sabres have and have had a surplus on defense since the summer. The one who happened to ask the general manager to trade him also happens to be the guy who looks the most out of his depth of the entire unit. Bogosian has sunk to a level where it’s more likely than not that he will cost his team points if he’s in the lineup.
Even if he hadn’t requested a trade, it would be hard to move him. Given his play of late, I’m not sure he’d be able to hold a regular spot in a minor league lineup. What’s frustrating about the saga is that every single sign says that Botterill should have expedited a move even if it meant taking a lesser overall return. Best case scenario, prior to any trade request and regardless of any poor play, the Sabres were looking at maybe a fourth-round pick. Now, I’d be amazed if they could fetch a sixth without any conditions. Given all of the extenuating circumstances, that’s a deal they should be taking.
Unloading Bogosian, with or without salary retention, should be one of the quickest tasks Botterill deals with this year. There’s little to no reason to have him in the lineup and now they’re dealing with a situation where he hasn’t only asked for a ticket out of town, but he’s costing them dearly when he’s on the ice. It would be addition by subtraction in more ways than one.
That Botterill hasn’t snapped to in dealing Bogosian is only serving as additional evidence with regard to his reputation for inaction. The logjam on defense persists while the forward corps desperately needs help. There are moves to be made to clear space against the cap and on the roster. Moves that will set up the next, more important step of adding talent where the Sabres are deficient.
One issue at hand is that aside from Botterill’s patient manner exhibited last year and into this, history isn’t exactly on his side on the latter point. In-season trades haven’t been too common over the past few years, especially any sort of tangible move where significant talent is exchange. There’s one, maybe two each year ahead of deadline season, but generally speaking it’s not a swap meet prior to January 1 and even in the final weeks of January as chatter ramps up near the deadline.
Looking back over the last few years, you have moves like the Taylor Hall or Matt Duchene trades, but rarely is there any sort of run of significant deals. For example, Duchene was dealt in November of 2016 and the Ducks and Devils swapped Adam Henrique and Sami Vatanen a few weeks later, but that was it for 16-17. Seth Jones and Ryan Johansen were traded for each other on the same day (January 6) Vinny Lecavalier was moved during the 2015-16 season, but there wasn’t much else in the way of big moves prior to that season’s deadline.
The story goes on like that for each of the seasons in that neighborhood, including this one, where the Hall trade has been the only move of significance made since the start of the year. The trend follows organizationally as well. The last truly notable early trade the Sabres made was selling Thomas Vanek to the Islanders on October 27, 2013. That came just before Darcy Regier would be fired and a few short months before Tim Murray would be hired.
Even Murray, regarded as an aggressive trader, made scant few in-season deals outside of the deadline. Murray made 15 in-season trades during his tenure as the Sabres GM, 11 of which came in 2013-14 and 2014-15 as they were tearing down. Of those moves, the vast majority came at or around the deadline. The only in-season, pre-January trade Murray made was swapping Jerry D’Amigo for Luke Adam.
In fact, during Murray’s final two years, the Sabres only executed the following deals in-season (deadline included):
- February 23, 2016: Mike Weber to Washington in exchange for a 2017 3rd Round Pick
- February 27, 2016: Jason Akeson, Phil Varone, Jerome Gauthier-Leduc and a conditional pick to Ottawa in exchange for Michael Sdao, Alex Guptill, Cole Schneider, Eric O’Dell
- February 29, 2016: Jamie McGinn to Anaheim in exchange for a 2016 3rd Round Pick
- February 28, 2017: Daniel Catenacci to NY Rangers in exchange for Mat Bodie
That’s it. Four deals, two for picks and two for minor league players. The inaction likely cost Murray his job after doing more work in the summer when it came to making acquisitions and signing free agents.
That doesn’t mean all that much for Botterill, of course, but it lends an interesting lens with which to view this through. Not only are significant deals fairly uncommon around this time of the year, but Botterill seems to be following a similarly troubling path as his predecessor did prior to being relieved of his duties.
Botterill needs to buck this trend. There’s really no other alternative. He did half the work this summer. He strengthened his blueline and created an opportunity to flip his depth and add some significant talent to the forward group. Instead, the only two forward acquisitions of note were Jimmy Vesey and Marcus Johansson. One of whom has been massively underwhelming and the other has been quite ineffective since returning from injury.
His team needs help at forward and the first step he needs to take in order to address that need has literally knocked on his door and asked him to get going. While Botterill would be operating outside the norms a bit if he made a big trade in the next week or two, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to unload Zach Bogosian now. In fact he did something similar last November in shipping Taylor Fedun to Dallas.
Moving Bogosian will start to clear the cap space needed to get the ball rolling on a deal that might just add scoring talent to the roster. That’s step one and I’m not sure what other reason the GM has for holding on to him at this point.
After that he can get to work on putting the Sabres on a relatively short list of teams that made big(ish) deals well ahead of the trade deadline. Not only showing his locker room (and the fans) that the team is in the business of making the playoffs, but because it’s so obvious what the team needs to remain in the race.
This season is well within reach, he shouldn’t delay any longer.
There are at least 2 problems
(1) the Sabres are dealing from an obvious position of weakness, and every team knows it, so it’s going to cost a lot to get any center or winger that has any realistic chance of becoming an impact player. The Sabres simply lack assets to acquire what they need, and if another lesser deal goes down and the player turns out worse than the ones they shipped out, nobody is going to be philosophical about it
(2) tradition dies hard – as pointed out in the article, very few big impact trades get made during the season. The rest of the NHL teams simply aren’t pursuing meaningful trades, it’s not on their radar.
Yes, Botterill needs to try (and he may well be doing that), but it’s a high priced crapshoot and the Sabres don’t have much to offer. Like the Bills last year, there is still some pain to be endured getting back on the right track, the playoffs may just be too lofty a goal this year.