We are less than four weeks away from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft...and the rumours are starting to fly!
There is a refreshing air of mystery around what Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres are going to do at this year's draft. The past two seasons saw the team, despite back-to-back last place finishes, drop to the number 2 spot. Last season, the Sabres surprised no one by picking Jack Eichel. While the year before, Sam Reinhart was chosen from basically a pool of three potential centers (Draisaitl, Bennett).
This season, however, things are a little more intriguing. Are the Sabres targeting one of the big three at D? Which one would they prefer? Maybe it’s a scoring forward they covet? Is there a trade to be made to move up, or is there a forward they feel would still be there at 8?
With the Sabres seemingly on their way back to respectability, I think the answers to these questions depend largely on where Tim Murray feels his team is at. Does he still consider them in the midst of a rebuild? Does he think they are a piece or two away from the playoffs? Does he feel they have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup in the near future? How he sees the team, should reflect the decisions that he makes this offseason.
As a fan, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the fantasy of going out and getting every available star free agent, or trading away the farm to acquire the latest talent on the trading block. But in reality, there’s a lot to consider. Take Steven Stamkos for example. Sure, the Sabres have the cap space to offer “the youngest superstar to ever hit free agency” a boatload of money that few teams could match. It’s true they also have a team that looks poised to make a lot of noise in the next few years…maybe more so than the other teams that have the financial means to match an offer from the Sabres. And boy, adding Stamkos to the lineup would boost the goal production. But does it make sense?
In order to pry Stamkos away from his current tax-free situation in Florida, I would guess one would need to offer somewhere north of $11 million/per on a 7-year contract. The problem with that is; how will that contract look over the final few years, AND…you’ve now set the bar for what Jack Eichel can expect to be paid when his entry-level deal expires. If you think that’s a reach…consider that in Stamkos rookie season he picked up 23 goals, 23 assists for 46 points over 79 games. Jack just registered 24-32-56 in 81 games.
Rasmus Ristolainen is due a big raise this summer, and depending on whether it’s a bridge contract or a max years contract…the Sabres could be looking at 5-7 mill per for him. Factor in Sam Reinhart at anywhere from 5-7 mill at the same time Eichel is getting paid, and ROR’s $7.5 mill contract and you are now in salary cap hell. The Blackhawks are a perfect example of what that scenario looks like…the constant reshuffling of players not in your core of 5 or 6 top contracts. They’ve lost a number of very talented players over the last few years as a result (Saad, Sharp, Byfuglien, Versteeg, Brouwer, etc). But…having said that, they do have 3 Stanley Cups to show for it…
With Stamkos comes other question marks; is his health a major concern? Has he played his best hockey? Where does he fit in the lineup? Can we have three lines centered by Stamkos, O’Reilly and Eichel or does someone have to move to wing? Is he really what we need? The price you’ll have to pay to get him, combined with all the other question marks, have me convinced that Stamkos is not a player Murray should pursue. He has his Stamkos in Eichel. Now he needs to surround Eichel with the type of players that will compliment him.
One free agent I would look long and hard at is Mikkel Boedker. Boedker plays the left wing, has speed to burn, like Stamkos is just 26 years of age, and will come at a much cheaper price tag. Okposo is another option, but much like Stamkos, I’m afraid the price will be greater than his overall worth.
On defense, there are three that may be worth pursuing. Alex Goligoski, Keith Yandle or former Sabre, Brian Campbell. Again, price and term for me would be the determining factors on whether I would pursue these options. Any of the three could realistically jump onto the top pairing with Risto and make an immediate impact. But, is that the best move? Or is giving the players you already have in the system every opportunity to show that they can step up to the challenge a better way to go?
In reality, the Sabres are a young team with lots of promise. Are they realistically a playoff team this year? I would say they have a good chance to make it interesting. Are they a realistic cup contender? Not at this stage. So why veer off course to try and force the situation by bogging yourself down with contracts that may have you looking at Matt Moulson as a bargain? It happens over and over in free agency. Teams are forced to overpay. The good teams tend to find the good deals on players that fit in (and under) the current players they have. The Sabres have a number of stars in the making. If they try and rush the process by bringing in players that upset the trajectory of what they’ve built so far…the whole thing could topple in a hurry.
Defensively, the team graded out 16th in the NHL for goals against this past season. They gave up just 12 more than the Stanley Cup Finalist San Jose Sharks. Offensively, they finished 26th, this is where their focus needs to lie. One can assume that the natural growth of a lot of their young stars will help to boost this number next year. But I would also add, they could use some scoring depth on their wings. A healthy Ennis would help, but concussions are a scary thing and there are no guarantees that he’ll be able to return to form. If I’m Tim Murray, I’m targeting offense in this draft. If there’s a move that makes sense to move from 8 to 4…go for it. If I’m Murray I’m not trading away multiple pieces (ie. Pysyk and Girgensons as some might suggest) just to jump 4 spots. With all the picks GMTM has accumulated over the next two drafts, maybe he can make a trade that solely involves picks. But is that even a worthwhile move? I’m not sold that either Tkachuk or Dubois are that much better than a Jost or a Keller. In fact, if I had my choice…Clayton Keller would be the player I’m targeting at 8. The kid is absolutely dynamite! At 5’10” he is a bit smaller in size, but there are tons of players his size or smaller who have thrived in this league. In fact, he models his game after another “under-sized” 5’10” player in Patrick Kane. If you want offense, I think Keller is a perfect match for Eichel. His creativity and playmaking ability have me thinking he could end up being one of the top 3, if not top, point producer out of this draft. And as a bonus, he has no problem playing the wing.
The three top defensemen in the draft are intriguing, but I think our defense is fine. Better than fine. Ristolainen is quickly developing into a bona fide number one. Jake McCabe made huge strides this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him jump up into the top pair with Risto next season. Bogosian has proven solid as a second pair dman that brings grit and some offense. I really believe that Mark Pysyk will be this year’s Jake McCabe as we have yet to see the best of him. McCabe made big strides last year…I expect Pysyk to finally settle down and do the same if given the opportunity. Youngsters Brendan Guhle and Casey Nelson are very intriguing players with the potential for big upside. The ever-steady Josh Gorges and Cody Franson round out the group. Murray has said he is looking for a dman who can quarterback the PP…that’s where I’d see Brian Campbell being a great fit, and he should come cheaper than a Keith Yandle or Alex Goligoski.
Up front, despite the lack of overall production, the team is looking good. A lot of youngsters got a lot of important experience last year…and that should bode well for this season. Eichel and Reinhart seemed to have found some chemistry, while O’Reilly and Kane have proven to be a solid pairing. If Tyler Ennis can return healthy, maybe he and Girgensons could form a third strong pairing. From there coach Dan Bylsma needs to plug in the third guy on each line from any of a number of sources (Deslauriers, Fasching, Moulson, Bailey, Rodrigues, free agent signee?). If we can make last year’s trio of Larsson, Gionta and Foligno (assuming he is resigned) our 4th line…things would be looking great!
Tim Murray has proven, in his short time here, that he is not afraid to pull the trigger on a big move. But he has also proven to have a very good grasp of what he has, and what he needs. We are in good hands. The man has a plan, and so far has executed it as well as can be expected.
I guess in conclusion, what all my rambling comes down to is this: The 2016-17 NHL season is like the bridge contract for the Buffalo Sabres. We are close. But the building is not yet done. Players are developing more or less as expected. The cupboards aren’t bare. The big club is full of veterans who know how to play the right way, and youngster who know how to watch and learn. I don’t see any need to break the bank on players that don’t fit the plan. Taking shortcuts rarely works. If need be, sign affordable talent, to reasonable length term…but make sure it’s players that fit into our current structure, and not players that change the course.
But I don’t need to tell Tim Murray all that.
I DO however...hope the one thing he tells me...and everyone else watching the NHL Entry Draft on June 24th…
“Buffalo selects Clayton Keller.”