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Expect a Sabres splash come draft week

As trade deadline days go, that was the ultimate snoozer. Far too much talk about the likes of Kris Russell being some pseudo Norris Trophy candidate. Far too much talk about guys who didn’t get traded like Jonathan Drouin (fire your agent, kid), P.A. Parenteau, Dan Hamhuis and Loui Eriksson.

The Sabres were quiet, save for the late-afternoon deal of Jamie McGinn to Anaheim. The goaltending market dried up once St. Louis and San Jose got backups, so Chad Johnson will stay. And that was that.

The McGinn situation was simple. The Sabres wanted to keep him, his agent clearly wanted the Stupid Season term and dollars he can get on July 1 and the Sabres weren’t going there now. If things don’t go ducky for McGinn this spring out west and he finds there’s no big-money market for him, he could come back. General Manager Tim Murray said he’s interested in making that happen.

Trading McGinn for a draft pick leaves a hole on this team now and going forward. Ryan O’Reilly loves McGinn, his friend from Colorado, and so does everyone else in that dressing room. That’s no small point.

But the bigger point that emerged Monday is this: Murray is set up to make a splash come draft week in June. Which is in Buffalo, of all places. And he knows he darn well better do it.

The standings sure count to Murray. He’s not happy about being 26th in the NHL or entering Monday just five points out of 30th again. Even used a phrase I’m not supposed to put in a family newspaper to describe his feelings about it.

Murray sees what everyone else does. The young core has played in spurts, some very good ones and some not so good (With Connor McDavid in town Tuesday, it would be good if Jack Eichel would snap out of a 13-game funk that’s produced one goal). He likes how hard his team plays and how coachable this group seems to be, although it would be nice if they would translate some of those listening skills to their currently anemic power play.

While you slept last week, the Sabres came close to sweeping road games in Anaheim, San Jose and Los Angeles. They gave up just four goals – four! – in three games and only won one. They need more help putting the puck in the net.

It’s getting harder and harder to do “hockey trades” in the days leading up to the deadline. Too many teams still harbor playoff hopes and it’s essentially just a rental market. Things change once the Stanley Cup is passed out in June.

The Canadian dollar is, ahem, tanking. Teams loading up for playoff runs this season will have to pay the piper and offload players to get under the cap. The Sabres have plenty of room to maneuver. They have 21 draft picks over the next two years. They have four third-rounders this year alone (three if the McGinn pick morphs into a ’17 second-rounder based on conditions).

Between picks and moving midlevel players like Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno or Mark Pysyk, Murray should be able to get some more veteran talent in here to speed up this rebuild. Like he says, it’s not hard to trade picks on the draft floor.

“We’re not a cap team yet. Some day I hope that we are and that’s the plan,” Murray said. “Teams that loaded up this year are going to have to move good players. I think we’ll be one of those teams that will be a buyer. I’d like to think that we’re a destination, despite our standings the last couple years, for free agency and we have a ton of picks that don’t have to be used on draft day.”

Think of what happened last year at the draft in Florida and the few days around it.

The O’Reilly trade was announced literally 10 minutes before Murray strode to the BB&T Center podium and famously said, “Buffalo selects Jack Eichel.”

Milan Lucic was traded at the draft. So were Dougie Hamilton, Carl Hagelin and Kyle Palmieri. It was an unusual swap meet with a run of goalies that included Robin Lehner, Cam Talbot and Eddie Lack.

Within the next 10 days or so, names like Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Carl Soderberg and Phil Kessel also got moved. You get the idea.

By the time the draft comes, Murray will have a much better idea about his team. He’ll know if he’s getting Auston Matthews or some other top pick by virtue of the lottery results. He said he needs to start talking with Rasmus Ristolainen’s representatives on an extension and has to decide to do likewise with Zemgus Girgensons, who is also a restricted free agent. But the Latvian was not a Murray draft pick and could be an interesting trade chip as well.

As for Ristolainen, who has emerged as their No. 1 defenseman, don’t bet on the Sabres getting him to take a bridge contact. Not after 21-year-old Pittsburgh blueliner Olli Maatta set a bar Friday by signing a six-year, $24 million extension.

The ultimate goal remains a Stanley Cup, not just making the playoffs. But getting into the postseason party for the first time since 2011 has to be Step One.

By 2017, the Sabres will be six years removed from the postseason – and 10 years removed from their last playoff series victory. That’s not Murray’s fault but, fair or not, that’s the legacy he inherits.

Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley don’t like hearing about 16 years of Bills failures but too bad. Same for Murray & Co. not liking how this franchise’s failures trace to the summer day in 2007 that Tom Golisano, Larry Quinn and Darcy Regier let Daniel Briere and Chris Drury walk out the door.

Murray’s state-of-the-franchise analysis on Monday was clear: “We’re not at the bottom of the rebuild but we’re not near the top of it either. We’re somewhere in between.”

It was impossible to get closer to the top Monday. A big step has to come in June.


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