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Sabres spent weekend looking to future while breaking up their current core

Sabres spent weekend looking to future while breaking up their current core

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Buffalo Sabres forward Sam Reinhart congratulates Rasmus Ristolainen on his first goal of the season against the Washington Capitals during the third period at the KeyBank Center on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.

The weekend was about bringing new names and new faces into the organization via the NHL Draft, and the Buffalo Sabres did that by making 11 selections, the most for the team since 2013.

Most of them are unknowns except to draft geeks, with the lone exception being No. 1 overall pick Owen Power of the University of Michigan.

But outside the club's draft room, of course, all the attention was focused on the names fans have known for many years. Rasmus Ristolainen was traded Friday to Philadelphia, and the much-rumored deal of Sam Reinhart to Florida was completed Saturday. The Sabres got first-round picks for each, as well as standout Canadian World Junior goalie Devon Levi for Reinhart and journeyman defenseman Robert Hagg from the Flyers.

That's virtually all futures, so it's easy to see a path for the NHL's 31st-place team in 2020-21 to become the first 32nd-place team in league history in 2021-22. Especially if captain Jack Eichel is the next one out of town.

Eichel remains the subject of a lot of chatter, with most everyone in NHL circles expecting him to get a new address by training camp.

It didn't happen this weekend like many thought it could but, remember, the Sabres don't have to trade him. Reinhart was a restricted free agent and Ristolainen was going to be an unrestricted free agent after next season. Eichel, however, still has five years left on his deal that carries a $10 million cap hit.

The lack of a move during what is always the busiest weekend of the offseason prompted an obvious question: Is the relationship with the team and its captain irretrievably broken to the point he has to be traded?

"I have no sort of – in any way, shape or form – hard feelings with Jack Eichel. I want to make that very clear," General Manager Kevyn Adams said Saturday in KeyBank Center after the draft ended. "I like Jack. Over the past year-plus that I've have been on the job, we've had a lot of different discussions, some of them maybe not as fun as others. We've gotten to know each other. I talked with his agents twice today. There's constant communication, but I understand where he is."

Translation we all know: His uncertain physical condition aside, Eichel wants out after six years of losing and isn't interested in any more rebuilds. Fair enough. The Sabres have a ton of young players developing in the organization and coming into it. Fans are going to have to live with being patient for more seasons. Players, of course, may choose not to be a part of that.

Adams insisted he felt no "pressure point" to make moves on any player, although the contract status of Reinhart and Ristolainen made it more imperative to get the job done this weekend. And he didn't move Eichel to get another Top 10 pick in this draft like he clearly hoped.

"When we feel it's the right time, whether we're talking about Jack or someone else, that we think it's the right thing to do for our franchise and the best thing for the Buffalo Sabres, then we'll do it," Adams said.

"I would have no problem at all if Jack Eichel is on our team when we start training camp. I have said this before, and I'll say it again, if we are in a position that we believe will help our franchise, not just short term, but for the long term ... than we'd be open to looking at it."

Speaking on a video call earlier in the day, Reinhart was understandably pumped to get sent to Florida – where he could have a legitimate Stanley Cup chance under coach Joel Quenneville.

But he did admit he remains disappointed that neither Adams nor former GM Jason Botterill ever offered him the long-term deal that he wanted in Buffalo.

"I've truly given everything I could have. For whatever reason, my contract situation has led to this point," Reinhart said. "I've always been prepared to sign long-term, but the reality of the situation kind of led to this. There were some decisions that had to be made.

"It was a tough spot to be in for a city that's given me so much. I feel like I had been committed and done everything that was asked and it was unfortunate it didn't work out the way anybody envisioned."

The return for Reinhart has fans understandably nervous about what might be coming for Eichel. Why didn't a five-time 20-goal scorer not bring back an NHL player for immediate help? The Sabres chose their path on this deal.

"A first round pick is really good value," Adams said. "In any trade, regardless of player, getting a first-round pick gives you an opportunity to get a player that you're going to be excited about.

As for Levi, Adams said, "We feel really strongly about him and certainly did our homework there. He had a pretty impressive World Juniors, and there's a lot to be excited about, especially at that position, to put in our system."

Adams said defensemen and centers are at a premium right now in the league and players who live on the wing, where Reinhart had played most of his career, are tougher to get assets for.

Adams mostly discounted the fact the Panthers are in the Atlantic Division with the Sabres in terms of making the trade. He wanted the best deal, no matter who it was with. That's a slippery slope if Reinhart re-signs long-term with Florida and one you would think would get even closer examination if, as rumored, Montreal is making a push for Eichel.

"My relationship with Kevyn is not tarnished in any way," Reinhart said. "... I'm a competitor. I want to win. Right now I'm thrilled to be part of an organization with aspirations to make it to the next level right now."

Adams said the Sabres "need to build our pipeline up," which was largely why they chose a futures deal for Reinhart. Getting 11 draft picks – including a cadre of Russians – helped that area, even though its impact won't be felt for several years.

That's how the NHL Draft works. It's not remotely about this year. It's about next year and well beyond. As for Ristolainen, Reinhart and, ultimately, Eichel, that's all about 2021. And how the Sabres are going to navigate it without them.

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