OK, the Sabres want to get better defensemen. Let’s look at the pending free agents.
There’s Kevin Shattenkirk and … um … er …
Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson?
Buffalo fans can really use some good news. Looking at the NHL defensemen available this summer won’t deliver it.
*The top unrestricted point-producers are Shattenkirk, Montreal’s Andrei Markov, Pittsburgh’s Mark Streit and the Sabres’ Franson.
*The top UFAs by minutes played are Pittsburgh’s Ron Hainsey, Markov, Buffalo’s Kulikov and Edmonton’s Kris Russell.
*The youngest UFAs are Kulikov, Philadelphia’s Michael Del Zotto and Calgary’s Michael Stone.
The Sabres have already tried Kulikov and Franson. It’s part of the reason they’re looking for top-four defensemen.
Washington’s Karl Alzner is worthy of an offer. But unless Buffalo lands Shattenkirk – and there will be plenty of suitors – it appears the UFA market won’t yield that surefire catch.
How about the restricted market?
The top point-producers are Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz, St. Louis’ Colton Parayko, Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere and Washington’s Dmitry Orlov. The top RFAs by ice time are Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev and Dallas’ Esa Lindell.
Other well-known RFAs include the Islanders’ Calvin de Haan and Vancouver’s Erik Gudbranson. Offer sheets are rare, but maybe the Sabres will think it’s worth it to deliver one.
More likely, General Manager Tim Murray will have to swing a trade. In order to get something, the Sabres will have to lose something. That means a key forward or two will be shown the door.
As of now, Rasmus Ristolainen, Jake McCabe, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, Justin Falk, Casey Nelson and Brendan Guhle will man the Sabres’ blue line next season. Buffalo needs more, as everyone from Murray to coach Dan Bylsma to Joe Schmoe has mentioned.
Finding more won’t be easy.
If the Sabres are wasting anyone, it’s Evander Kane.
Yahoo Sports sparked an internet debate last week when it wrote the “Sabres are wasting Jack Eichel.” The basics:
*The Sabres are a rotten team and will miss the playoffs during Eichel’s first two seasons.
*Eichel is a top-10 scorer since his return from injury.
*Eichel’s peers – Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine – are in playoff or trophy races.
*Eichel is too good to not be in the playoffs.
It’s hard (or impossible) to argue with those premises. The debate is about “wasted.”
There are too many stars who missed the playoffs their first two seasons to even think about writing a list. Top prospects join terrible teams because that’s how the draft process works. Good seasons for young players have gone for naught for decades.
Eichel has at least five more seasons in a Buffalo uniform. His expiration date isn’t until 2021-22 at the earliest, so it’s a bit quick to say he’s being wasted. (However, if you want to say the Sabres are wasting a season in which he comes cheap, that’s a viable argument.)
When it comes to Kane, however, his time is being wasted with no playoffs. The Sabres acquired him in February 2015, and he had three more seasons on his contract. Therefore, they had three seasons to make a run.
Time is almost up.
There was progress last year. There’s been none this year – and the way things are going, Buffalo may take a step back in points.
The Sabres wanted Kane for his scoring ability, and the left winger has delivered:
*He leads the Sabres with 24 goals and is on pace to tie his career high of 30.
*Since Kane scored his first goal Dec. 3, only Montreal’s Max Pacioretty (26), Boston’s Brad Marchand and Nashville’s Filip Forsberg (25 each) have more.
*Kane has 10 goals in his last 15 games.
Buffalo, meanwhile, is closing in on the Eastern Conference basement. During Kane’s 45-game binge, the Sabres have gone 18-20-7, including 1-6-2 in the last nine.
Kane is set to be an unrestricted free agent after next season. The best way to keep him in Buffalo (and that’s an entirely different debate) was to become a playoff team. Now Murray may have to trade him.
If it’s clear during offseason talks that Kane will explore the market in 2018, Murray can’t risk losing the forward for nothing. He’ll have to deal him during the summer or by next trade deadline.
If Kane leaves town without a playoff game, that will indeed be a waste of production.
LIFE OF O’REILLY
Murray has said he wants to do right by players. Look no further than Cal O’Reilly.
When the Sabres gave Ryan O’Reilly a seven-year, $52.5 million contract, they also handed his brother a two-year deal that paid him $700,000 a season whether he was in the minors or the NHL. His prior deal with Vancouver was $600,000 in the NHL and $325,000 in the minors, which is how most contracts for up-and-down players work.
Recently, a source says, Cal has wanted out of Rochester, which is last in its division and 28th out of 30 AHL teams. Murray granted his wish, loaning O’Reilly to the Toronto Marlies for the rest of the season.
It certainly did not help the Amerks to see their captain given away for nothing, but if O’Reilly ever talks about his time in the organization, he'd better say Murray treated him right.
It’s not the ideal time to be affiliated with the Sabres.
Rochester is not only last, it plays in an arena that Buffalo hates. The Elmira Jackals, meanwhile, have announced they are ceasing operations at the end of the season. The Sabres don’t run the ECHL team, but they do help supply it with players.
The Jackals are 14-38-8 – which is, of course, last place.