– Evan Sally
The Buffalo Sabres made waves this weekend at the NHL Draft. Already slated to take generational player Jack Eichel, the pay off after a year of tanking for last place, that would have been more than enough to satisfy Sabres fans. GM Tim Murray had other plans. He began the day trading the 21st overall pick to the Ottawa Senators for young goaltender Robin Lehner. However, that was just the prelude to the big move of the day: a blockbuster deal that sent Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn to the Sabres for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, prospect JT Compher and the 31st pick. While most agree the acquisition of these players will certainly help the Sabres, did they give up too much? And looking forward towards free agency, what should the Sabres look for to fill in the remaining holes on their roster?
G Robin Lehner for the 21st pick in the 2015 Draft
The first thought when seeing this move is that this is a lot to give up for a goalie, especially one that only won 9 of his 24 starts last season with a 3.02 GAA. Add in the fact that it was a goalie-saturated market with guys like Cam Talbot, Martin Jones and Eddie Lack out there available for reportedly far less (Lack ended up going for a 3rd round pick in 2015 and a 7th round pick in 2016 to Carolina), this move can leave you scratching your head. Why give up so much for Lehner when there were more proven goalies available to you for less money?
The answer: Youth and control. Lehner has 2 years left on his current contract at a very manageable $2.225 million cap hit each year. Following that, he’ll be a restricted free agent (RFA) that will allow the Sabres to match any offers he gets from other teams. Meanwhile, guys like Eddie Lack (1 year left before he becomes an unrestricted free agent) and Martin Jones (RFA this off season) don’t offer Sabres management as much roster flexibility or as much of an opportunity to figure out what they have between the pipes before deciding to commit big money or not.
Perhaps even more important to Tim Murray than the extra years in the contract is how young Robin Lehner is compared to other goaltending options. Martin Jones is 25. Eddie Lack is 27. Lehner is only 23 years old, and even though he had a down season last year, he’s shown promise, winning the AHL Playoff MVP going 14-4 with a .939 save percentage and 2.10 GAA while leading the Binghamton Senators to the championship in 2011. To put that into some perspective, Lehner is one of only 3 teenaged goalies to win an AHL Playoff MVP in the past 70 years, joining some pretty impressive company: Carey Price and Patrick Roy. Since goaltenders typically don’t hit their prime until later into their twenties, he has plenty of time to develop, and if he can recapture some of his former promise, giving up the 21st pick could end up looking like a steal.
C Ryan O’Reilly and LW Jamie McGinn for D Nikita Zadorov, C Mikhail Grigorenko, C JT Compher (Prospect) and the 31st pick in the 2015 Draft
First of all, you have to commend Tim Murray on having the testicular fortitude to pull off a trade like this. Whether you think it’s an overpay or a great trade for the Sabres, Murray saw an opportunity and pulled the trigger, which is way more than we could say for the former Darcy Regier regime that used to be patient to the point of paralysis. Another thing you have to agree with, even if you think the Sabres gave up too much, is that Ryan O’Reilly is a stud hockey player by almost every definition.
When you look at his stats for last season, they aren’t that eye-popping: 17 goals, 38 assists for 55 points in 82 games. However, there are two things to consider here: 1) The league leader in points this past season was Jamie Benn with 87 points. This puts O’Reilly’s 55 points into a bit more perspective and places him firmly into the second tier of NHL scorers. He is blessed with incredibly quick hands, a fantastic wrist shot and stick handling ability. (All of which are on display in this highlight reel of all his goals from the ’14-’15 season you can find by clicking here) Combine that with the fact that: 2) O’Reilly was often paired against the other team’s top line when he was on the ice. This forced him to not take as many chances as he could have in exchange for making sure he played a sound game in the defensive zone. And yet, he was still able to rack up as many points as he did. He was overshadowed by other talented centermen in Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon, who O’Reilly split offensive zone opportunities with.
Now O’Reilly comes to Buffalo, where Coach Dan Bylsma has already declared he plans on O’Reilly being his number 1 center while Jack Eichel gets used to the NHL. This should allow O’Reilly to expand his game as more of the scoring and leadership burden will fall on him. All reports say O’Reilly is a high character guy, who works hard on and off the ice. (You’re gonna want to check out this great video of Ryan and his brother’s off season training regimen.) Despite having issues with contract negotiations in Colorado, Tim Murray has already said he’s committed to keeping O’Reilly here long term. (He wanted 8 years, 64 million from the Avs, I’d expect a similar deal in Buffalo.) Sabres fans can take comfort that the 24-year-old center should be able to rise to the challenge and blossom into a star for years to come.
Previously, I spoke about how O’Reilly may have been overshadowed by some other talent in Colorado. Well, Jamie McGinn is overshadowed by Ryan O’Reilly in this trade. And that’s fair enough, O’Reilly is certainly the centerpiece of the deal. But McGinn is more than just a throw-in in this trade; he a very solid player in his own right. While McGinn missed most of last season after undergoing back surgery in December, he had a career high in points with 38 the year prior for the Avalanche. McGinn is only 26 years old, and you have to hope that the 38 point season is a sign of things to come. He can be a very nice 3rd line player for the Sabres for the future.
McGinn and O’Reilly are really nice players, two great acquisitons. But did the Sabres give up too much? Let’s take a look. The 31st overall pick the Sabres gave up, while a nice pick that can sometimes pan out, is best used in my opinion in a situation like this, as extra ammo to get a deal done. Also, in a draft where you get Jack Eichel, how much would a prospect taken 31st overall truly matter anyway? When it comes to Mikhail Grigorenko, his entire career with the Sabres was a disappointment. Taken 12th overall in 2012, Grigorenko came to a talent starved organization that hoped he could provide the impact of a top 5 pick. That proved to be too many expectations too fast. The Sabres mishandled him, playing him with the big club too early instead of allowing him to develop in juniors. And also, he was never going to be the player that the Sabres hoped he would become. With a change of scenery and the chance to play with his coach from Juniors, Patrick Roy, Grigorenko could have a nice NHL career in Colorado. But it wasn’t happening in Buffalo. The Sabres also give up a prospect in center JT Compher. Compher, who is playing for the University of Michigan right now, is a good prospect that the Sabres will miss. But when you look at the Sabres center depth right now (O’Reilly, Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Johan Larsson, David Legwand) and consider that 4 out of the 5 centers are under the age of 25 years old, where would Compher fit?
Zadorov is the player that hurts to give up the most without question. He had shown some real promise in the chances he got to play in Buffalo, laying some punishing hits and displaying a nice amount of skill as well. On top of that, he’s only 20 years old, and you can fully expect him to further grow into his 6’5″, 230 pound frame and become an absolute beast of a player. Now, there were some issues with maturity this past season, missing flights and team meetings, that caused him to be disciplined by the team. But read again what I just wrote. Maturity issues with a 20-year-old. That should not be all that surprising. I’d expect this trade to serve as a wake up call, and I fully expect Zadorov to be a star in this league. While the Sabres are confident if their other young defensemen’s ability to further develop (Rasmus Ristolainen, Mark Pysyk and Zack Bogosian), losing Zadorov certainly leaves a hole in the Sabres defense corp. A hole I’d expect the Sabres to address in free agency.
Potential Free Agents
As of right now, I’d project the Sabres lineup to look something like:
Moulson – O’Reilly – Ennis
Kane – Eichel – Girgensons/Reinhart
Foligno – Reinhart/Girgensons – McGinn
Deslauriers – Larsson – Gionta
Ristolainen – Bogosian
Pysyk – ?
Gorges – Weber/McCabe
Tim Murray has already expressed his interest in going out and getting another defenseman, preferably with a left-handed shot. While there are a few defensemen that meet this criteria, I’ll focus on 3 in particular.
Fresh off another Stanley Cup championship, Oduya hits the market at a perfect time. A lot of teams are looking for a veteran defensive defenseman, and being that Oduya is one with a Stanley Cup pedigree only helps further his case. There will be alot of teams chasing Oduya and that will drive up his price, but that’s not too much of an issue as the Sabres are about 16 million under the cap, and Terry Pegula has no problem spending. The issue with Oduya is his age and the length of contract he would look for. Oduya is 33 years old and would be 34 by the time the season starts. If he wants a deal of 4 years at 5+ million per season, is that something the Sabres would want to commit to? I think Oduya should be high on the Sabres list but only if he wants to do a 2-year deal, 3 years max.
Martin offers a couple of things the Sabres could find very attractive. Bylsma is very familiar with Martin, having coached him for 4 years in Pittsburgh. Bylsma will know how to use Martin the right way to get the most out of him. Also, he shouldn’t command anywhere near as much money or length of contract as Oduya will, so a 2-year, cheaper contract should be a viable option. However, that’s because he’s not as good as Oduya. He’s also a year older at 34 years old. Oduya, at this point of their careers, is the better defensive defenseman and can use his mobility to put out fires in his own end. Martin, who is also mobile, has to play within a solid defensive system to get the most out of him. Now, I think the Sabres think they have the pieces to building such a system in Ristolainen, Bogosian and Pysyk. Adding a veteran like Martin would definitely not be a long term solution, but could help add valuable veteran experience to a young defense corp at a lower price.
A player Sabres fans are very familiar with, Sekera, I believe, is the optimal option for the Sabres to target to fill their hole at defensemen. We all know his game, fantastic mobility, with an ability to carry the puck end-to-end, gain the offensive zone and make the right pass to get the team into their offense. Since leaving the Sabres, he’s become more sound in his own end, usually making the right decision to keep the puck from danger areas. He’s also become more able to play big minutes, logging 22 minutes per game in LA last season. His youth relative to the other two options listed is his biggest selling point. He just turned 29 in June, and seems be coming into his own. I think the Sabres should be more than comfortable offering Sekera a longer deal at big money, something like 5 years and 5 to 6 million per year. He would be a great building block, and it would solidify the Sabres top 4 defensemen for years to come. Now, Sekera had made some comments disparaging Buffalo when he got traded to the Hurricanes in 2013, but I think that should be water under the bridge at the right price. If money talks, Sekera will listen.