Ok, time to take a deep breath, Sabres fans.
It's over; the trade deadline has come and gone, concluding one of the wackier weeks in franchise history. Fans of the team saw the Sabres trade away a franchise icon, a team captain and the top remaining scorer on the team and watched from afar as the front office turned into an episode of Game of Thrones.
Now it has all passed and realistically there probably won't be any interesting Sabres news until June, except for who the head coach will be next season. That's a little bit sad for me as I was looking forward to the trade deadline for quite some time. After all, what else did Sabres fans have to look forward to this season? It certainly wasn't the games as the Sabres currently have just 44 points and 12 non-shootout wins in 61 games. Night in and night out, Sabres fans have had to watch such horrors as Cody Hodgson matched up against some of the top scoring lines in the league, or Mike Weber on a regular defense pair or John Scott being in the lineup at all. It's enough to drive any sane person crazy.
What I've been looking forward to have been some moves at the trade deadline to stock up on assets for the coming years. We know the Sabres will pick at or near the top of the draft this summer, but I wanted to see them get some more pieces for the future. Yes this meant the sad realization that the team would have to say goodbye to Ryan Miller after 11 memorable seasons with the team, but the time had come. The team had reached rock bottom (we hope) and now they needed to arm themselves with the ammunition to build a winner under new GM Tim Murray.
After a number of moves, the Sabres are not loaded with top prospects, but they have an assortment of riches (aka draft picks) to get excited about what they could possibly do in the next few offseasons. Oh, and they also have a general manager who is not kidding about his desire to rebuild this thing from the ground up and is willing to do what it takes to ignite the rebuild.
Going back to the Thomas Vanek trade Darcy Regier made back in November, the Sabres have acquired two first round picks, a possible third first round pick, three second round picks, three young prospects, a power forward for the current roster and a goaltender who will compete for playing time with Jhonas Enroth. For the sake of discussion, we won't focus too much on the acquisitions of Torrey Mitchell or Rostislav Klesla, who are expiring veteran contracts aka dead weight.
We should all send a gift basket to Regier for his parting gift – the Vanek trade. Holy crap did he fleece the Islanders, though who is surprised a team run by Garth Snow made a questionable move? The Sabres return for Vanek was Moulson, a first round pick and a second round pick. The Islanders, after bottoming out and realizing that they would have no choice but to move Vanek's expiring contract at the deadline, only got a second round pick and a prospect back in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday.
To top it off, the Islanders have the choice of letting the Sabres have their first round pick in either the upcoming 2014 draft or the 2015 draft – the Connor McDavid draft. With the Islanders on track to end up with a top-5 pick this year, Snow and the Islanders face the nightmare decision of either giving up that top-5 pick to the Sabres, or their potential McDavid lottery ticket in 2015. (As a Sabres fan I want that 2015 pick; Give me as many chances as possible to land McDavid). To sum it up, Regier did Murray quite the favor by handing him these assets on the way out the door.
With Moulson a free agent at season's end, Murray tried to get the most he possibly could for him at the deadline. Those demands were perhaps a bit too high, though, so while rumors of a first round pick and/or top prospect for Moulson flowed during the days prior to the deadline, all Murray could get were two second round picks for Moulson from Minnesota while exchanging interchangeable parts in Cody McCormick and Mitchell. I think this was a decent haul though to get two second round picks in a market that dried up a bit as GMs wisened up a bit and decided not to throw around high draft picks and top-flight prospects (except Glen Sather and the Rangers, of course).
The big story of the trade deadline came not on Wednesday, but rather last Friday when Murray had his first "I'm Tim Murray!" moment and traded away Miller and Ott. Buffalo's franchise goaltender and captain went to a legit Stanley Cup contender (I love the St. Louis roster) while Murray got back a first round pick in the McDavid draft, a conditional draft pick for 2014 that will become a first round pick if the Blues make it to the Western Conference Finals, re-sign Miller or trade his rights before the draft, Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart and prospect William Carrier. Murray did not fleece Blues GM Doug Armstrong, but I think he got a nice return for Miller and Ott.
The return from the Miller/Ott trade nets Murray another pick in the McDavid draft, which many say could be the best draft in years, as well as potentially another first round pick this season. The trade also brings in two actual human beings, which often have been an afterthought in some of these Sabres trades.
Stewart immediately becomes one of Buffalo's top-six forwards, for better or worse. The former first-round pick does have 64 and 53 point seasons on his career resume, but he was easily St. Louis' worst puck possession forward this season in terms of Corsi and has been saddled with the dreaded "inconsistent" label that makes him appear to be more Drew Stafford than Corey Perry, a player with similar height and build as Stewart. Still, he's only 26 and under contract for next season, so it won't hurt the Sabres to see what they have in him.
Carrier is 19 and the Blues' second round pick this past season, a forward with size and skill, but also problems with injuries the last couple of seasons. I have no idea if he'll ever become a regular for the Sabres, but their cupboard is pretty bare in terms of forward prospects, so it makes sense to add a guy like him.
More prospects came to the Sabres on Wednesday when they dealt Brayden McNabb, Jonathan Parker and two second round picks they originally acquired in the Robyn Regehr trade to the Los Angeles Kings for Hudson Fasching and Nicolas Deslauriers. Again, here was an example of Murray realizing he needed to add forward prospects to the system and moving some assets to get them. I don't love giving away two second round picks, but the Sabres have stockpiled so many draft picks from trades in the last two seasons that it makes sense to trade some of those in for young players.
McNabb had shown some promise as a defensive prospect, but his development had plateaued and the Sabres are all ready well stocked with defensive prospects. Parker was simply a throw in and offered no real upside to the organization.
Neither Fasching nor Deslauriers are high-end prospects, but they do offer upside, perhaps more than McNabb does at this point. Fasching is the prize of the two, an 18-year-old winger who was drafted in the fourth round by the Kings this past year. He has risen up the Kings system this past year with 27 points in 31 games so far as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. He has also impressed as a member of the U.S. National Team, competing in this past year’s World Junior Championships. He has outplayed his fourth-round draft slot so far this year.
The Sabres made one more trade on Wednesday as they flipped Halak and a third round pick in the 2015 draft for Michal Neuvirth and Klesla. Klesla is a spare part heading to Rochester, but Neuvirth is a 25-year-old goaltender who has a chance to compete with Enroth for the starting job in camp next season. Neuvirth, who has a .914 save percentage in 13 starts with Washington this season, is under contract through the end of next season.
Neuvirth also ignited a controversy on Twitter Wednesday night when he was assigned no. 30 by the Sabres. Not to go on a tangent here, but my God, why do Buffalo sports fans care about the dumbest shit? It’s a number. Yeah, I know, Miller wore it and we love Miller and he was just traded, but this is such a non-issue. It’s not like they’re giving Neuvirth Gretzky’s number, or even Hasek’s number. I’m sure Miller doesn’t care someone else is wearing his number.
Seriously, Buffalo sports fans do this to themselves. They get riled up about things that don’t matter. I had to stop looking at my Twitter app on Wednesday night because I was afraid it was going to start on fire. We freak out about this, but a story comes out about the new general manager and head coach of the Bills running into conflict with Ralph Wilson’s good-old-boy cronies who still have influence on day-to-day operations and that story barely registers a blip on the Buffalo sports Twitter radar screen. Seriously, let’s stop acting like a minor-league sports town.
Anyways, Neuvirth is still young and hasn’t really gotten a full-time chance with the Caps, so I’d be interested to see with more starts in Buffalo.
The Sabres also picked up Cory Conacher off waivers from Ottawa on Wednesday in a move that pleased many Buffalonians as Conacher is a Canisius College alum. The 24-year-old Conacher had a nice rookie season in Tampa last season before being traded to Ottawa, where he hasn’t had quite the same amount of success.
Conacher looks like a career minor leaguer to me based on his limited size (5-foot-8) and production (49 points in 107 career NHL games) at the NHL level, but he is a candidate for a rebound because of limited ice time in Ottawa and a miniscule shooting percentage that is likely to improve. He also has posted decent Corsi numbers.
In the end, I think Murray did a pretty nice job in his first trade deadline with the Sabres. He didn’t come away with a huge haul in any of his four trades. In fact, he didn’t pull anything nearly as nice as what Regier got for Vanek. He did get another first round pick and perhaps another conditional first depending on what the Blues do, but he didn’t bring in any high-end prospects like Tyler Toffoli, Jonas Brodin or Mika Zibanejad, but he got the best value I think he could for his pending free agents given the market. He added some forward prospects to the system and the Sabres are still set up for the 2014 and 2015 drafts with a first and three second round picks already in the Sabres’ hands for 2014 and two firsts and two seconds in their hands for 2015, with the destination of the conditional New York and St. Louis picks still to be determined.
Murray certainly has a lot of work to do with a roster that is basically expansion level at this point. He’ll have to make some signings in free agency to meet the salary cap floor. The key, of course, will be the number of draft picks they have and what Murray does with them. Does he move some for established players? Does he simply draft the best available players? Does he try to acquire more picks? I think the plan will be to build the team around their first round picks with an eye on the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
If they get studs early in the 2014 and 2015 drafts (McDavid please), the turnaround might be complete much quicker than we’re anticipating. Until then, get ready for some pretty crappy hockey in Buffalo over the next two years.