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With ten days to go till the NHL trade deadline, the Buffalo Sabres once again find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff race. A season that started with promise has been derailed to a point where a ninth straight season of missing the playoffs looks very likely.
The trade deadline presents a unique opportunity for the Sabres to hit the ground running in order to right the ship for next year. While there may be those inside the organization who still hold on to hope for salvaging the season, the correct decision is to accept things as they are and make the most of it by 3 PM on February 26th.
The deadline doesn’t necessarily have to be a fire sale to accumulate as many draft picks as possible, although that’s certainly not the worst option. The situation for the Sabres is unique because a surplus exists on the current roster that would allow the Sabres to retool without gutting the core of the roster.
Specifically, the blue line is overcrowded not only with one too many NHL level defenders, but defenders who seem to all fill the same role. This is how players end up forced into roles they aren’t quite comfortable with, which in turn means the Sabres get less value from these players.
With Zach Bogosian off the roster, the three highest paid defenders on the Sabres are right shot defensemen falling into the same age bracket and find the most success in the same role. For the most part, the Sabres have managed to put these three in positions where they actually get the least value from all three.
Colin Miller was moved from third pair minutes on the Vegas Golden Knights to first pair with 19-year-old Rasmus Dahlin in his first day as a Sabre. That move didn’t last long and actually led to Miller seeing extended time in the press box.
Brandon Montour has seen time as Dahlin’s partner, with the duo posting a mediocre XGF of 47.1% and a good chunk of time as Rasmus Ristolainen’s partner on the top pair, where the duo has been crushed, conceding nearly one goal more against than for per 60.
Right handed defensemen, especially those with term in their 20’s, are still very valuable trade assets in the NHL. Buyers will be looking to shore up their blue line so the Sabres should have no trouble generating interest. With Henri Jokiharju’s game steadily improving, there’s a legitimate case to be made for dealing two of the aforementioned righties, however, it may benefit the Sabres to deal just one by deadline day, and finding better roles for the other two to help increase value between now and draft day.
Colin Miller has shown recently that given the right role he can really make a difference. In the Sabres last ten games, Miller has appeared in nine and posted an impressive CF% of 55.95 and XGF% of 51.77. He also carries what will likely be the most team friendly contract among the three right handers going into next season. Both Montour and Ristolainen’s numbers would likely look better if they received a similar role to the one Miller is right now, but the Sabres don’t want to be caught paying too much for the fringe 2nd/3rd pair role. With Montour becoming a restricted free agent (with arbitration rights) and Ristolainen carrying a 5.4-million-dollar cap hit, Miller seemingly represents the best value for the role moving forward.
Unfortunately for the Sabres, they don’t have the same luxury when it comes to their forwards. With the exception of the top line, the majority of the forwards have disappointed for the most part.
(capfriendly.com, click on image for better quality)
The good news for the Sabres is that a lot of cap flexibility is going to open up in the off season, with 9 of the 13 forwards on expiring contracts. Conor Sheary and Jimmy Vesey have shown flashes of upside but have lacked consistency and scoring. 14 goals at 5v5 between the two of them and a combined individual expected goals for of 15.57 makes them bad value at a combined 5.75 million on the cap an unlikely re-sign candidates.
Michael Frolik was brought in to provide depth at forward after the Sabres moved Marco Scandella to the Montreal Canadiens, but in his limited time Frolik has struggled. In his 15 games with the Sabres, Frolik has the second worst CF% and XGF% of any of the regular forwards at 5v5. He does have a history of success when it comes to on ice impacts, but his recent run with the Sabres and large cap hit makes him tough to move. The fourth-round pick used to acquire Frolik was acquired from Montreal in the deal for Scandella, who carried a similar cap hit. This makes the actual cost to the Sabres essentially za swap of expiring contracts from defense to forward so the Sabres don’t miss out on much here if they decide to hold on to Frolik for the rest of the year.
Evan Rodrigues has had a tumultuous year to say the least. A run of poor play saw him become a mainstay in the press box, leading to a trade request. Unlike Vesey and Sheary, Rodrigues has a history of good on ice impacts and with the year he’s had, it’s unlikely he’ll see a major increase through arbitration on his current 2-million-dollar cap hit. It’s a tricky situation for the Sabres because any deal involving him right now would likely be selling low but there’s no guarantee Rodrigues turns it around under head coach Ralph Krueger.
The move here should be to give Rodrigues a good run in the lineup for the remainder of the season, especially since dealing one or both of Sheary and Vesey would open up opportunities. Either they find a fit for him in the back half of the season and he turns it around or he doesn’t and they can move him early in the off season. There isn’t much risk involved here since his trade value has plummeted, the Sabres are likely better off betting on Rodrigues than whatever late round pick they’ll be offered.
Then there’s Johan Larsson, the engine in Krueger’s defensive scheme. Larsson has had another strong season as the shut down centre for the Sabres, with an on ice expected goals against of 18.73, ranking him 19th among all forwards with 500 or more minutes played. His total XGF% is 51.22, and with a CF% of 50.8, we know he’s not just out there to keep the puck in the neutral zone. Larsson will be an un restricted free agent this summer and there’s already been reported interest from the Boston Bruins (a move that would make a lot of sense for them).
In general, the trade and free agent market still has a tough time properly valuing defensive abilities, so it’s difficult to predict how much the Sabres could get by deadline day. However, a defensively sound centre is a valuable player to have in the playoffs when coaches really emphasize matchups. The problem here won’t be finding interested teams, but figuring out what the true cost of trying to replace Larsson is. In a season where a lot has gone wrong, one of the things the Sabres as a whole have done a great job of is limiting quality chances against, and as mentioned before, Larsson has been the backbone of that great defensive play. If you move Larsson for a second-round pick, do you wind up spending more to replace him? Or, does moving Larsson help begin the shift in philosophy from defensive to offensively geared hockey? A system where Larsson may not be able to have as big of an impact, but his replacement at third line centre could.
All told the Sabres should be fairly active on deadline day. With a surplus on defense, disappointment on the wings and a centre with great defensive upside, the Sabres will have an opportunity to lay the ground work for bigger moves later in the year. In part two, I will look at some potential moves the Sabres can explore with the names that have been mentioned here in part 1.
Thanks for reading!