Imagine you're Buffalo GM Jason Botterill and the possibility of ending a seven-year playoff drought is within reach, but the balance between talent and flaws has you stuck in no-man's land and with just over a week to go before the NHL trade deadline. Your team, which was once at the top of the League, is now treading water alternating between wins and losses the past 11 games with play that generally mirrors that record. They've not been able to win two in a row since December yet they've only had one real bad stretch (3-8-1,) one that effectively balanced out their 10-game winning streak in November. The playoff bubble teams in and around your team all have issues, but they've played consistent enough hockey and made enough headway to create a little breathing room with just over a quarter-season to go.
Complicating matters is the fact that the team with the longest current playoff drought, one year more than your team, is ahead of you in the standings and looks like they may reach the playoffs before you do. Should that happen while you miss out again, you would be the GM of a team with the longest current NHL playoff drought even after having possibly the longest winning streak in the League that season.
Such is the conundrum for Botterill and his Buffalo Sabres.
Botterill's Sabres were coming off of three straight solid performances but played sloppy for much of last night's 6-2 home loss to the NY Rangers. Analyses of the game will come from far and wide but head coach Phil Housley's comments to the gathered media pretty much told the tale. "We didn't work," he said post-game. "We didn't work. We were disconnected as [a five man unit]. We didn't reload. We didn't execute. When we don't execute we look slow, we look sloppy.
"We were easy to play against."
A reporter asked, considering how this team played the exact opposite the prior three games, why did this happen and Housley replied that it was "very disappointing" but then sent a bomb the player's way. "You have to understand desperation at this time of the season," he said in obvious reference to his players. "Every shift counts. Every play counts. The details of the game. We thought it was going to be easy and New York worked, give them credit. We just let them roam. We're soft."
Housley had the look last night of someone that just passed through a threshold. Up at the podium he didn't look like an assistant that was trying to look like a head coach. He looked like a coach that knew who was and had confidence in what he was doing. Housley was generally emotionless, didn't come off as boorish and he didn't try to find some hidden rainbow or words to coddle his group. Nor was there any misspent or feigned emotional outrage. Just a head coach-worthy, matter-of-fact assessment of the situation.
He and those who've watched this Sabres team know their flaws and know that it's going to take more than one trade deadline to get them to the point of being a legitimate playoff contender. However, they do have enough pieces in place to stay in this hunt and possibly get there if, and that's a big 'if', they can stick to the game plan and put in the necessary work to get there. But the roster is going to need a shot in the arm.
The Sabres are top-heavy up-front, thin at center, marginal on the wings and suspect on defense most nights with a goaltending duo that relies mostly upon team play while alternating between making the big save and whiffing. They're 5-5-1 record as of late is the mark of a team that's young at it's core with talent to move the needle but not enough of it to get rolling in the right direction, especially at this time of the year.
Botterill added a huge piece in the off season to get them to where they are now in the form of winger, Jeff Skinner. Imagine this team without Skinner and his 36 goals. He was the only one to score last night and the only one on the team with the sniping ability to score on a consistent basis. Skinner has been a Godsend to a Sabres club that had spent three of the last five seasons at the bottom of the league in scoring and the other two years 25th or below.
Buffalo also has two very talented franchise-type players in center Jack Eichel and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, although the latter is only 18 years old and still has a lot to learn despite already being the best defenseman on the club. Second overall pick Sam Reinhart is playing up to his draft position, in a set-up role more than a scorer, and there are some very promising young pieces learning on the fly. However, the group of veterans they have is flawed, generally alternating between borderline serviceable and solid with egregious mistakes vastly outnumbering superior plays.
Botterill has a tough decision to make as to whether he'll be a buyer or seller this trade deadline but one thing he won't do is trade a first-rounder for a rental. The second-year GM had to do a re-rebuild with the Sabres and had to rebuild the Rochester Americans from scratch. Much of the prospect pool he inherited from his predecessor hasn't worked out so well and the pieces he has to build with are few and far between so the four first round picks they have over the next two years will go a long way in helping to fill pipeline.
Without including first-rounders, you won't be able to land the likes of a Matt Duchene, who would immediately slot in as the No. 2 center, or wingers like Mark Stone and Artemi Panarin who would add desperately needed top-six scoring. A player like winger Wayne Simmons, who combines character, grit and top-six scoring--all traits the Sabres could definitely use, especially in light of last night's game--will almost definitely fetch a first-rounder from a contending team as would fellow winger Michael Ferlund. Right-handed defenseman Dougie Hamilton is also in that realm.
The trade deadline, like the start of free agency, is for high-rollers and the Sabres right now are playing the quarter slot machine. Their needs are many and although they may have enough currency to acquire an impact rental player, having him walk at the end of this season does nothing for the future of the club and undermines the building process. That said, as long as they're in the playoff hunt, Botterill does need to do something to let his team know that they're not out there on an island.
And there's the rub. Had the Sabres continued their skid from December, life would be fairly easy as they could sell off what assets they could and continue to build for the future. However, this alternating between wins and losses with the playoffs still within reach complicates matters as Botterill would love to break the playoff drought but is (rightfully) steadfast in not mortgaging the future to do so.
I guess that's why he gets paid the big bucks.