Assessing the Sabres' approach to the trade deadline

January 23, 2019 - 4:32 pm
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The NHL Trade Deadline is nearly one month away, coming at you on Monday, February 25 at 3 p.m. EST.

In the past, the deadline has proven to be a turning point for some teams trying to make a deep run for a Stanley Cup come spring time. If a team plays its cards right, they can gain an asset or two to help add to the depth of the roster or upgrade at a position of need. Most of these acquisitions are rental players, with those assets likely to head to unrestricted free agency once the new league year begins on July 1.

However, more teams are starting to make trades to shake things up for the long-term plans, even if the player acquired is on an expiring contract or has a year or two left on their current deal. For example, the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired defenseman Ryan McDonagh from the New York Rangers at the deadline last year in a blockbuster deal with one-year remaining on his contract. This offseason, the Lightning went on to sign McDonagh to a big contract extension that will kick in at the start of the 2019-2020 season.

This season is the first season in a long while that the Buffalo Sabres are sitting in playoff contention as the league is about to head into the All-Star break. As of right now, the Sabres currently sit with a 24-18-6 record in 48 games and 54 points in the standings. That currently placed the Sabres on the outside looking in of the Eastern Conference Wild Card picture, just four points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins and five points back of the Boston Bruins.

Looking at the Atlantic Division, the Sabres currently trail the Montreal Canadiens by seven points for third place in the division. Ahead of the Canadiens sit the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are currently eight points ahead of the Sabres in second place. Then in first place there is the Lightning, who currently have a 22-point advantage on the Sabres and are running away from the pack.

The Carolina Hurricanes have also joined the party with the Sabres in the playoff race, sitting in a tie at 54 points in the standings. However, the Sabres have two games in-hand on the Hurricanes as they head into the All-Star Break.

With Buffalo in their current position and with the team taking a turn in the right direction this year, some could say that the Sabres should look to buy at the trade deadline to increase their chances of making the playoffs or adding that piece that can be a solution in the long-term plans.

Looking at their draft assets, the Sabres currently have the possibility of selecting with eight picks in the 2019 NHL Draft. The big draw for the Sabres is the three potential first round picks the team holds on to with their own first round pick, the St. Louis Blues' first round pick, and the San Jose Sharks' first pick.

The Sabres acquired the the Blues' first round pick back on July 1 when they traded Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis. That deal also saw Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund and a 2021 second round pick come back to Buffalo. However, the 2019 first round pick is lottery protected, meaning that it can become a 2020 first round pick if the Blues end up with a top-10 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The Blues do have the right to choose whether or not they will keep the 2019 pick. If they choose to hold on to the pick, the 2020 pick will go to the Sabres no matter what.

Right now, the Blues sit in 25th in the league standings with a 21-22-5 record and 47 points through 48 games played. That currently gives them the seventh overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.

As for the Sharks' first round pick, the Sabres acquired that as part of the Evander Kane trade at last year's trade deadline on February 26, 2018. That deal also had the Sabres acquiring a conditional fourth round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and prospect Danny O'Regan.

The pick officially became a first round selection when the Sharks re-signed Kane on May 24, fulfilling the first condition of the February trade. As for the second condition of the deal, the pick will remain a 2019 first round pick if the Sharks clinch a playoff berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, if the Sharks fall out of playoff contention and miss, then the Sharks will give the Sabres their first round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

If the Sharks miss the playoffs this season, their 2019 first round pick would go to the Ottawa Senators as part of the Erik Karlsson trade back on September 13. Ottawa would get the 2020 first round pick if San Jose does make the playoffs so either way, the Sharks will end up not having a first round pick for the next two seasons. 

With these three picks, could the Sabres trade one or two of them in order to bring in an asset to help them now and in the future?

After some clarification from our own Paul Hamilton and the folks at CapFriendly.com, the Sabres are allowed to trade the picks despite the fact that there are still inflight conditions still hanging over them. However, the Sabres would still have to abide and respect those same conditions of the original trade.

The Sabres can also add additional conditions to a trade on top of those if they wanted, but the original conditions need to transfer over.

We know that the Sabres currently have a top line that consists of Jeff Skinner, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart that can score and produce offensively on a consistent basis. However, the Sabres are in desperate need of some secondary scoring, as well as a suitable second line center behind Eichel. Casey Mittelstadt is currently the long-term plan to eventually play that role, but the 20-year-old has struggled, at times, to fill that spot in his rookie season.

It's important to note that this Sabres team is probably not a group that is going to contend for the Stanley Cup in 2019. Never say never, but the team is not quite competitive enough yet to the point where they could make a deep run this season. With that being said, it would be a colossal mistake to trade one of their first round picks or any top prospects for an asset that would only help you for the rest of the 2018-19 season, or that would not be part of the long-term solution in Buffalo.

However, if the Sabres continue to slide in the standings and fall further out of the standings, general manager Jason Botterill could potentially look to sell off a piece or two for some potential future assets.

The biggest name the Sabres have with an expiring contract is Skinner, who is on pace to have a career-year playing in his first season in Buffalo. Through the first 48 games of the season, Skinner has scored 30 goals and 44 points, which is a current pace of 51 goals and 75 points in 82 games. Skinner's career-high for goals in a season is 37, which was set two years ago while he was still with the Hurricanes.

Multiple reports have indicated that Skinner and his representatives are getting set to talk about a potential contract extension with Botterill and the Sabres at some point in the next week or so. It is also speculated that Skinner really enjoys Buffalo and wants to stay with the Sabres and get a deal done.

Let's hypothetically say that things go south in negotiations before the trade deadline and all talks fall apart. Do the Sabres still hold on to Skinner, or does Botterill pull the trigger and trade him to maximize his assets and get back a, potentially, good return from another team? What could Skinner even garner on the trade market if he is available?

At this point, a Skinner trade at any point seems highly unlikely. Botterill's intentions should be to ride out the season with Skinner in Buffalo and try to get a new deal done for the long-term.

Another name that could certainly be moved by the Sabres is defenseman Nathan Beaulieu. The 26-year-old has already made it clear that he wants more playing time in Buffalo, or else he'd like Botterill to explore the option of trading him. Beaulieu is in a contract year with the Sabres, so it is understandable why he wants to be on the ice. He's playing for a job at the NHL level next season, whether that's in Buffalo or elsewhere. This season, Beaulieu has scored three goals and registered seven points in 26 games as the Sabres' sixth or seventh defenseman.

Other players that are on expiring contracts for the Sabres are Jason Pominville (UFA), Zemgus Girgensons (RFA), Johan Larsson (RFA), Remi Elie (RFA), Evan Rodrigues (RFA), and Jake McCabe (RFA).

The most likely scenario for the Sabres at this year's trade deadline is that the team stands pat and doesn't make an impact move at all. It's more likely that Botterill will try to ride out the season and continue with his evaluations of the roster as the team tries to fight its way back into a playoff spot. While that may not sound like a lot of fun for trade deadline day, it may be the smartest approach for this group.

Once the season is over, then it's up to Botterill and the rest of the organization to determine what went right and what went wrong for the group and go from there.

If there is one thing that should be a goal for the Sabres to try and get done by the deadline is to get Skinner signed to a long-term contract. Other than that, it's ok to continue to stay the course.

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