BUFFALO – Don’t let four impressive wins in the last six games fool you. The Sabres still rank last in the Atlantic Division and 29th in the 30-team NHL.
Yes, they’ve improved greatly this season. Still, they’re 11 points out of the Eastern Conference’s last wild card spot entering tonight’s home tilt against the Detroit Red Wings inside the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres are going to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year, meaning they’ll almost certainly be sellers before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. General manager Tim Murray told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun last week he plans to take the same approach as the last two seasons, when the Sabres finished dead last.
“I do stress that we think we’ve improved greatly everywhere but in the standings,” Murray said. “This is the process. If I can acquire younger assets or future assets for some of our veterans, especially veterans on expiring contracts, I’m going to pursue that for sure.”
So what might the Sabres do? As Murray said, some of his five upcoming unrestricted free agents will probably be dealt. But given Murray’s history, anything short of trading centers Jack Eichel or Ryan O’Reilly or defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen might be on the table.
Barely two years into his tenure, Murray has demonstrated a willingness to pull off blockbuster trades at any moment. His eight-piece deal with Winnipeg that netted the Sabres winger Evander Kane last season took place Feb. 11.
The big deals greatly depleted the Sabres’ large pool of coveted young assets. Between the Kane trade and the O’Reilly deal with Colorado on June 26, they dealt five prospects under 22 they had drafted in the first or second round.
Murray’s resources are limited this year.
The market is already active. Here’s a quick look at who the Sabres could deal in the coming weeks.
Winger Tyler Ennis: The diminutive speedster has been a huge disappointment in the second season of a five-year, $23 million contract, scoring only three goals and 11 points in 23 appearances. Twenty-five goals or so seemed like a given since he scored 20 the last two years on terrible teams.
Ennis, 26, has struggled under new coach Dan Bylsma’s rigid system. He’s also battled injuries. Right now, he’s sidelined with an upper-body injury and hasn’t played since Dec. 30.
At some point, the Sabres will have to clear some salary to pay for some of their young players heading toward restricted free agency. Ennis could be a prime candidate.
Winger Jamie McGinn (upcoming UFA): If the Sabres are serious about winning, they would be wise to try to re-sign McGinn, 27, an afterthought in the O’Reilly deal and perhaps the Sabres’ biggest surprise. The team needs wingers badly, and his 10 goals are tied with Kane for fourth on the low-scoring club.
McGinn might net at least a second-round pick. But why deal a versatile presence in his prime? McGinn has also showcased some strong chemistry with Eichel and O’Reilly, his close friend.
Goalie Chad Johnson (upcoming UFA): Goaltending is the Sabres’ greatest strength. Johnson, 29, has been strong almost all season. He’s 9-6-2 with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage in 18 games since the beginning of November.
But the crease might be too crowded for Johnson to stick around. Starter Robin Lehner just returned from a high ankle sprain. In his absence, rookie Linus Ullmark played well, showcasing qualities of a future No. 1. The Swede’s in Rochester right now, but he might be ready for permanent NHL duty.
Johnson probably wants a two-year contract and has played well enough to earn one. It’s very possible a contender will want him.
Defenseman Mike Weber (upcoming UFA): Veteran depth defenders usually have strong value, especially down the stretch. The gritty Weber, who just endured two brutal seasons, has rebounded nicely this year, performing like a solid No. 6. Weber, 28, could be worth a low draft pick.
The Sabres also have defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, a healthy scratch 18 of the last 19 games. Colaiacovo, 32, has performed well enough this season he might generate some interest.
The Sabres’ other upcoming UFA, graying fourth-line forward David Legwand, 35, earns $3 million and would probably be wanted more for his mentoring skills than his on-ice exploits.
The Sabres had Thursday off after losing 2-1 in Colorado on Wednesday, so there’s no new update on winger Sam Reinhart, who left in the third period after suffering an upper-body injury when he collided with John Mitchell. Bylsma said following the game Reinhart would be evaluated further.