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Inside the Sabres: Amerks bracing for unpredictable trade deadline

ROCHESTER – Danny O'Regan had 24 hours to pack a bag, arrange for a car filled with his belongings to be shipped across the country and report to Rochester. O'Regan, a 25-year-old winger recalled Friday by the Buffalo Sabres, laughed Wednesday in Blue Cross Arena when recalling that unexpected, chaotic journey.

Yet, O'Regan knows his story – from being pulled off the ice at practice and told he was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres for Evander Kane to uprooting his life in San Jose – is like so many that occur leading up to the NHL's annual trade deadline. Some players choose to monitor every rumor and report. Others stay away from social media or TSN.

The former is a fruitless endeavor for most players in the AHL. After all, minor leaguers are rarely the subject of rumors during trade season, which officially ends Monday at 3 p.m. But Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill's ongoing roster overhaul, which began with Kane's move to California, has Amerks players aware that no one is safe.

"Anything can happen," winger Alexander Nylander told The Buffalo News. "Obviously, it’s nothing we can control. You can’t worry about it. Just focus on our games this weekend and whatever happens, happens."

Botterill did not sound eager to make a deadline splash when he spoke to reporters Wednesday in Tampa Bay, adding that his current focus was on internal improvement. He is also said to have no interest in acquiring a rental at the deadline, making any sort of trade less likely.

However, Botterill has the prospects and draft picks to make a significant move if he chooses, and has already shown he is not attached to players acquired by his predecessors.

In addition to moving Kane, Botterill traded Nicholas Baptiste, a former third-round draft pick, to Nashville in October and moved Justin Bailey, a former second-round pick, to Philadelphia last month.

His remaining trade chips could include three first-round picks in this year's draft and a few Amerks. In theory, players such as defensemen Brendan Guhle and Will Borgen, both drafted by former GM Tim Murray in 2015, could be more likely to move than Botterill's draft picks or acquisitions.

That fact is not lost on Guhle after he saw Bailey and Baptiste depart.

"It happens in every organization," Guhle said. "Sometimes guys just need a fresh start. You saw it with Justin Bailey. Now he's in the NHL. Some guys need fresh starts, and I'm happy they're doing well. I just want to play the best I can. I want to be a Buffalo Sabre.

"You see it all the time. It’s a business. Every guy is kind of playing for himself in that way, but you have to do everything you can to put yourself in position to succeed."

Guhle, a gifted skater chosen in the second round in 2015, is only 21 years old and in the midst of his third full professional season. He has appeared in 23 NHL games, including two this season, and had a negative-7 rating through 53 games with the Amerks entering Friday.

Borgen, a 22-year-old fourth-round draft choice in 2015, is in his first full season with the Amerks and has a plus-4 rating through 53 games. Both could be useful in the Sabres' quest to improve their defense now and in the future, yet their upside would surely be coveted if Botterill chooses to upgrade before the deadline.

There is also Nylander, the struggling prospect whom the Sabres drafted eighth overall in 2016. The 20-year-old had only eight goals among 24 points through 42 games before returning from a lower-body injury Friday. Though he has yet to perform up to expectations, Nylander is still held in high regard by scouts around the NHL.

He and his teammates did not plan to pay attention to the trade winds until after the Amerks' three-game weekend.

"I don’t think you can get too wrapped up in it," said O'Regan, an unrestricted free agent this offseason. "It’s coming up again. You can’t be checking your phone every five minutes to see if trades are happening. You just have to focus on whatever games you have that week. You can’t think about it because you have no idea what can happen."

The Sabres' fading playoff hopes make any sort of significant deal unrealistic, and Botterill is more likely to engage in meaningful trade talks this offseason. Regardless, the Amerks don't want a move to be made.

Entering Friday's game in Utica, Rochester was on a three-game winning streak and sitting first in a tight North Division race. The Amerks have benefited from losing few players to the NHL – O'Regan and Scott Wilson were recalled Friday, while Lawrence Pilut was returned to Rochester – and not having to rely on call-ups from Cincinnati.

That sort of stability has allowed coach Chris Taylor to keep his dynamic second line of O'Regan, Victor Olofsson and Rasmus Asplund together. It has also helped players such as Guhle and Borgen develop. Constant roster moves between Buffalo and Rochester can stunt a player's progress.

Plus, the Amerks want the same group together once the Calder Cup playoffs begin in April.

"Everyone is watching TSN and all that kind of stuff," Taylor said of the upcoming deadline. "That’s part of the process. It’s part of it every year. As a hockey fan everyone is excited about it. Everyone wants to see where everyone is going and which team is going to make moves, what team isn’t going to make moves. ... It’s always exciting and nerve-racking for us because obviously we don’t want to lose any players. They’ve become part of our family and it’s tough to lose family members."

Most Amerks have already watched the deadline pass in previous seasons and some have even been traded. Goalie Scott Wedgewood was traded twice in four months last season, including his move from Arizona to Los Angeles before last season's deadline.

They have urged the younger Amerks to not worry about what could happen, but that's easier said than done in what can be a harsh business.

"You have to keep your head on straight," Wedgewood cautioned. "You have to play a hockey game no matter where it is. Obviously, you want to help the team that’s paying you and you have to work for them in your time there. If you go somewhere else then that’s the way it goes."

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