By Benjamin Burke. Originally published at The 4th Line Podcast
Sunday night ended any speculation about Center, Ryan O’Reilly, being traded to the St. Louis Blues. He is no longer a Buffalo Sabre. GM Jason Botterill was essentially given what he asked for. Two roster players (Patrik Berglund, Vladmir Sobotka), a prospect (Tage Thompson), and two higher draft picks (1st-2019 with conditions, 2nd-2021). Scoring and forward depth plagued Buffalo but Berglund and Sobotka will improve the bottom-six eventually. Thompson likely starts in the minors and could elevate someone from Rochester (C.J. Smith, Sean Malone) if they are ready. A first round pick never hurts although it is Top 10 protected. The Blues, adding two centers in 24 hours, will likely be outside of the top 10 even if they miss the post-season. The result: the Sabres could have three picks in the first round. Not too shabby!
Botterill always preaches how concerned he is about the future of the franchise. Trading a #2 center is not immediately better but if all goes as planned, the exchange looks good. But he has not ignored the short-term, proven by a trade for winger, Connor Sheary (Pittsburgh). Outside of Evander Kane, this is the best left-winger Jack Eichel would play with at this point. The likely depth chart (see bottom) has Sheary as the top winger if the season opened today.
There is some news for Sabreland: the season does not commence for over three months. Sheary is a nice player with speed who complements skilled forwards, but he is not the end-all. If I am Jason Botterill, I look for options as teams have surpluses and some have cap issues. Some have both. Knowing I am limited on the wing would encourage me to seek additional help. With potentially 3 picks, all that are could be retained by Buffalo, I would be looking for deals. Offer sheeting is an option (and more fun) but GM’s are hesitant despite paying with draft picks.
So let’s open the imagination! What options could the Buffalo Sabres have to improve the winger more immediately?
William Nylander – Toronto Maple Leafs
There are two options in acquiring the back-to-back, 61-point forward: trade or offer sheet. An salary proposal would be interesting but the Maple Leafs can match it if they choose to retain him. If not matched in seven days after signing, Nylander could be joining his brother. The elder obviously is more desired and known but I feel Leaf’s GM, Kyle Dubas, would keep him.
As Toronto has upcoming contract extensions (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner) to deal with, could Dubas be enticed? Let’s pretend he is: what would he want? Obvious answer: a 1st and 2nd at the least. A serviceable defenseman (Jake McCabe, Casey Nelson). Would he want Sam Reinhart? Even so, I am interested to tweek this. In the end, I firmly believe the Maple Leafs place high value on William Nylander and will sign him. But I would certainly be testing the waters.
Jason Zucker – Minnesota Wild
Coming off a personal best 33 goals, 64 points, the California kid would be a major improvement on the left wing. Jason Zucker has always been known for his skating but he is solid goal scorer, with two other 20-goal seasons. As finding the net has been rare in Buffalo, the 26-year old can help on even-strength or powerplay. Historically, Zucker has proven more useful at 5 on 5 but can support the 2nd PP unit.
Personally, I find Zucker as a realistic option for the Sabres. Minnesota still has about $10 million in cap space with Zucker and Matt Dumba (D) as RFA’s. And depending how new GM Paul Fenton feels about Joel Eriksson-Ek, can they afford all 3? Whether offer sheet or via trade, Zucker is due a raise. The Sabres still have over $13 million to play with and you could be looking at an Evander Kane-esque contract. Botterill is also looking to extend Sam Reinhart, which is expected to be $4-5 million AAV. That being said, there will be contracts off the books come 2019 (Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson). If the sophomore GM is as cap-saavy as they say, Botterill could make this work. It is just how to get there.
Max Pacioretty – Montreal Canadiens
Prior to the NHL Draft, the Habs were being linked to Ryan O’Reilly with some rumoring that the 29 year old could be in a deal. With one year left, and the state of the Canadiens, Pacioretty could be on the block. Typically a 30-goal man, it may have been a thought on Botterill’s mind. Despite being a quick upgrade, I am not sure what else Marc Bergevin would have to offer at the time. And that is not including the 3rd overall pick.
With the O’Reilly dilemma concluded, Pacioretty could remain an option. He would certainly take the top spot of the depth chart at LW. The question is the current price and what Habs’ captain expects in a new contract. The 2007 first-rounder was reported as unhappy with his previous agreement, resulting in a new agent. Pacioretty’s side will be looking for a James van Riemsdyk contract at a minimum. He could want more.
If I were a GM, I would be willing to talk trade with Bergevin any day. Player transactions are not his forte. I might evaluate if buying low is a possibility. Knowing Botterill’s thoughts on the Sabres’ core, Pacioretty does not sound like a major interest. But if the ask is easy to swallow in the short-term, I might pull the trigger. At worst, there would be interest upon the next trade deadline.
Patrick Maroon – Free Agent
Another reasonable option for the Buffalo Sabres comes in the form of player known for pairing with top lines. Patrick Maroon has seen plenty of ice time with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim and supported top players in Edmonton. The 30 year old is a forward that can create space of skilled players and score here and there. Nothing about his game is flashy but he supports his linemates well. Maroon has been an efficient scorer (~2.0 avg. P/60) and consistent puck possession player (52.9 avg CorsiFor, 2.5 avg Relative Corsi) in his career. All are qualities that would improve the Sabres top-two lines.
The difference between Maroon and Anthony Duclair is that Maroon is a known commodity. A GM signing him knows what to expect. With the Sabres, it would certainly not hurt them. The only downside is that Jason Botterill is less interested in older hockey players. And at this point, Maroon may be looking for a longer term deal. I might be interested in a 2 year deal but probably not more. It addresses a short term need but should not impact the future. On a shorter contract, it could complement the young talent that will play in Buffalo.
In House Options
With free agency, offer sheets, and trades never certain, Botterill needs to find an answer. A more definite response for management and coaching staff is to review what they already have. For those who have watched plenty of Buffalo and Rochester hockey, there is not much. Nick Baptiste and Justin Bailey have shown signs they can play in the NHL but without much consistency. Alex Nylander is on the verge of being a draft bust if his summer does not prepare him to have an impact at training camp. Victor Olofsson had a strong year in the SHL but needs to adjust to North America via the AHL. Of this group, Olofsson is the most intriguing.
The best possibility could be of a free agent signing in 2017: C.J. Smith. The UMass-Lowell alum was voted into the AHL All-Star Game last season and was a top player for the Americans. With good speed and instincts, Smith is an easy option if the Sabres’ front office believes he is ready. He, undoubtedly, must have an impact in September amongst the competition. With the gaping hole at LW, plenty of wingers should do all but kill for a spot on opening night. It is there for the taking. From what I have seen, C.J Smith has the best chance of any in the system to earn a spot in Buffalo.
Sabres Depth Chart by Position
Note this does note reflect line combinations but to where they are in strength at a position.
|1. Conor Sheary||1. Jack Eichel||1. Sam Reinhart|
|2. Vladimir Sobotka||2. Casey Mittelstadt||2. Kyle Okposo|
|3. Scott Wilson||3. Patrik Berglund||3. Jason Pominville|
|4. C.J. Smith||4. Evan Rodrigues||4. Tage Thompson|
|5. Johan Larsson||5. Zemgus Girgensons||5. Justin Bailey|
|6. Victor Olofsson||6. Sean Malone||6. Nick Baptiste|
|7. Matt Moulson (it’s that bad)||7. Dan O’Regan||7. Alex Nylander|
|8. Vaclav Karabacek||8. Rasmus Asplund||8. Cliff Pu|
|1. Rasmus Ristolainen||2. Rasmus Dahlin|
|3. Marco Scandella||4. Zack Bogosian|
|5. Jake McCabe||6. Casey Nelson|
|7. Brendan Guhle||8. Matt Hunwick|
|9. Lawrence Pilut||10. Nathan Beaulieu|
|1. Carter Hutton|
|2. Linus Ullmark|
|3. Scott Wedgewood|
|4. Jonas Johansson|