The Light at the End of the Tunnel

(Photo Courtesy of Fansided)

What. A. Day.

Roughly 48 hours ago Sabres fans awoke with a very similar feeling. The club had lost its NHL-leading 36th game the night before to a visiting Senators team that had entered Tuesday night with a three-game losing streak. Despite outshooting the opposition, which has become a rare feat over the course of the past year, a late goal left the home team firmly mired in a lengthy slump. However, as quiet as the subsequent night came to a close, the following morning was anything but uneventful.

On Wednesday morning, TSN’s Bob McKenzie echoed some of the sentiments that he had spoke to the night prior on TSN’s daily segment “Insider Trading.” According to McKenzie, the Sabres were aggressively pursuing disgruntled Winnipeg forward Evander Kane. After reiterating those reports on Twitter, the story began to pick up. Soon enough, McKenzie’s colleague Darren Dreger reported that talks were heating up and that there was a sense the Sabres were getting closer to finalizing a deal. Within minutes, the deal was complete.

The Sabres traded defenseman Tyler Myers, winger, and pending unrestricted free agent Drew Stafford, prospect forwards Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux, and a 2015 first-round pick (the latest of the Sabres three upcoming first round selections) to the Winnipeg Jets. In return, Buffalo received Kane, defenseman Zach Bogosian, and unsigned prospect goalie Jason Kasdorf. By making this deal general manager Tim Murray took a substantial step in re-shaping the club to his liking.

A few hours later, while the local and national media was still chewing on the eight-piece blockbuster trade that Murray had already swung, the Sabres second-year executive completed a second transaction. Buffalo traded goalie Jhonas Enroth to the Dallas Stars for goalie Anders Lindback, and a conditional third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Although this move had fewer moving parts and a less than notable return, it also clearly represented Murray’s vision for the short and long-term future.

Let’s briefly take a look at each moving part within Wednesday’s flurry of activity starting with the Winnipeg deal.

 

Former Sabres Defenseman Tyler Myers  (Photo Courtesy of NHL.com)

Former Sabres Defenseman Tyler Myers
(Photo Courtesy of NHL.com)

What the Sabres Gave Up

Tyler Myers

After years of hoping that the mammoth defenseman would return to the on-ice production he posted in his Calder Trophy-winning first season, Buffalo finally decided to part ways with Myers. Although I was certainly a Myers defender at times during his six-year tenure here in Buffalo, I can’t say I’ll miss him too much. His inconsistencies both in production and in willingness to engage opponents physically were maddening.

When he first came into the league, fans were drooling over his skill-set and understandably so. His combination of size, skating ability, and offensive capabilities were unlike anything Buffalo fans, and NHL fans had seen at such a young age. Unfortunately, for both Myers and the Sabres, his career went astray a bit.

Over the past several months Myers’ name was one that was frequently popping up in trade rumors. National media pointed to Myers as someone who could greatly benefit from a change of scenery, and perhaps that will be true. However, I have my doubts that Myers will suddenly revert back to the form that led former Sabres executives to believe he was a cornerstone piece in the backend. In his six years here, Myers has clearly regressed. His game hasn’t evolved on the ice, and he also hasn’t developed into a leader in spite of his lengthy stay in Buffalo.

With Myers now gone, the Sabres still look to be in good shape defensively. In the short-term the club will likely be hard-pressed to fill Myers’ shoes in terms of ice-time, but the future remains bright. Ristolainen and Zadorov both appear to have top-pairing ability, and Gorges will provide a steadying veteran presence to accompany their developing young talent. Newcomer Bogosian is regarded as a very capable second-pairing defenseman, and the remaining spots will be filled by any number of means (free agency, prospects, trades, etc.).

Drew Stafford

Much like Myers, Stafford’s departure has little effect on my emotions as a fan. Similarly to his longtime teammate, the winger’s time in Buffalo was a frustrating one. There were seasons where Stafford flashed the ability of a more than adequate top-six winger. In his nine seasons in Buffalo, Stafford tallied 50 points twice (2011-12 and 2010-11), 20 goals twice (2008-09 and 2011-12), and even had a 31-goal season in 2010-11. All that said, his inconsistency in effort and enthusiasm made his time here in disappointment. There were nights where Stafford used his big frame (6-foot-2, 214 pounds) to drive hard to the net and as a result, resembled a scoring power forward. Ultimately, there were far more nights where Stafford floated to the periphery and seemed indifferent to truly battling on behalf of his team.

Stafford’s presence in this trade feels like a throw-in addition, which I believe is indicative of what Murray thinks of the 29-year-old. Despite his experience, both in Buffalo and in the NHL, Stafford wasn’t a leader. He had his best seasons when he was motivated by the uncertainty of free agency. With a developing team comprised of impressionable young players, Stafford wasn’t the veteran to show them the proper way of competing and playing hard every night. Like Myers, Stafford will likely benefit from playing alongside better teammates. With that said, his departure from Buffalo won’t have any lasting impact.

Joel Armia

More than Myers, Stafford, his fellow prospect Lemieux, or the upcoming first-round pick, I was disappointed to see Armia leave the organization.

Armia, who was drafted by Buffalo 16th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, remains a promising commodity. Following three years playing alongside professionals in the Finnish Elite League, Armia initially struggled to adapt to the North American game in Rochester. However, he’s steadily progressed and displayed the potential of a player that could one day reside within a club’s top six forwards. He’s big (6-foot-3, 187 pounds), a quality skater, and offensively gifted. Though he’s battled injuries once again in his second season with Rochester, Armia has recorded 25 points (10+15) in 33 games. While there are concerns, much like any other prospect, about his ability to adapt to the NHL level, Armia represents the player in this deal that I believe could come back to haunt the Sabres a bit. Time will tell.

Brendan Lemieux

As I listened to WGR in the hours following the trade, the player that fans were most disheartened to see leave Buffalo was Lemieux. To me, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Lemieux. As he began slipping down the draft board this past June, I was among the people hoping the Sabres would scoop him up. His grit, willingness to fight, and ability to score goals seemed like a very appealing combination. Naturally his pedigree (son of Claude Lemieux) was appealing as well. However, I believe Sabres fans are placing far too much stock in his last name.

In three years in the OHL with the Barrie Colts, Lemieux has improved. His 36 goals this year are impressive, and he’s continued to rack up the PIM’s as a hell-raiser. However, what if Lemieux’s last name was different? Would his ranking as a prospect be as high? Would fans be so distraught about him departing to Winnipeg? I’d say no.

Lemieux is likely two to three years away from making an impact at the NHL level. Armia on the other hand will likely have an opportunity to play in the NHL next season. Lemieux has developed playing in the OHL. Armia developed in the Finnish Elite League and in the AHL. Lemieux projects as a grinding, instigator type that could potentially contribute offensively. Armia projects as a top-six winger that could prove to be dynamic offensively. While I’m disappointed that both prospects will now be developing in other organizations, fans should consider what the club is truly losing, and also which prospect is more unique and less difficult to replace.

2015 First-Round Pick

The last part of the deal was another piece that I was a bit more reluctant to relinquish. The upcoming draft is considered a deep one, and with two (likely) late first-round picks at his disposal, I was fond of the idea of Murray selecting two prospects, or even packaging those picks into a higher selection. However, Murray still possesses two firsts, and two second-round picks to work with. He also has time to replenish his stock before the deadline with several pending UFA’s. One also has to credit the GM for ensuring that Winnipeg will receive whichever first-round pick is the latest of the three.

 

What the Sabres Received

Evander Kane

Wow.

As a longtime admirer of Kane’s, I’m beyond thrilled that he now resides within the Sabres organization. The 23-year-old represents everything you want in a forward. He’s big (6-foot-2, 195 pounds). He’s a great skater. He’s tough (played with a bum shoulder, and fractures in his foot and hand this year). He’s physical (effective on the forecheck, finishes checks, unafraid to drop the gloves). Perhaps most importantly to a Sabres team devoid of high-end talent, Kane is a proven scorer.

At only 23, Kane has already amassed quite a resume. In six seasons and 361 games, Kane has 222 points (109+113) and 385 PIM’s. More impressively, he’s predominately managed those statistics without being given top linemates or consistent power play time in Winnipeg. Over the course of his career, Kane has regularly been one of the NHL’s top producers at even strength.

The reason for his availability stems from off-the-ice concerns. During his time in Atlanta and Winnipeg, Kane has often been regarded as an immature troublemaker. He’s been called difficult to deal with and has been accused of being estranged from his peers. That speculation came to a head over the last two weeks following stories of a dispute between Kane and his teammates, more specifically Dustin Byfuglien. The character concerns, at this point, don’t seem irreparable by any means. While Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan lumped Kane into the same category as new Buffalo Bill Richie Incognito, Kane has far from the track record of despicable behavior that Incognito possesses. Is it possible that Kane alienated himself from the rest of the team? Absolutely. There seem to be stories out there that definitively suggest that. But are his faults the type that couldn’t be helped by an entirely different environment? No.

On the ice, there are no concerns with Kane. By all accounts he works just as hard, if not harder than most. If the Sabres can foster a greater sense of maturity and interest in camaraderie both on and off the ice, this trade will become a memorable one.

New Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian  (Photo Courtesy of Pro Hockey Talk)

New Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian
(Photo Courtesy of Pro Hockey Talk)

Zach Bogosian

While Kane’s change of address might grab more headlines, Bogosian is far from an ordinary contributor. Although the thought that he’s essentially an even swap for Tyler Myers remains to be seen, Bogosian possesses characteristics that should endear him to fans fairly quickly.

Bogosian, who was actually taken 3rd overall in Myers’ same draft year (2008), has largely been discussed as a solid third or fourth defenseman on a good team. Tim Murray described Bogosian much the same way he spoke about Kane: he’s tough, physical, athletic, and young (24) with room for improvement. Unfortunately, like his teammate, Bogosian has also battled injuries during his time in the NHL. The New York native has missed portions of six out of his seven seasons due to injury.

Bogosian’s talent has teased Thrashers and Jets fans for years. Injuries have certainly hampered his ability to consistently produce, and Bogosian likely departs Winnipeg much in the same way that Myers leaves Buffalo. Although early in his career Bogosian appeared to possess the all-around ability of a number one defenseman, those high expectations have become tempered by his performance thus far. In Buffalo, he’ll have the opportunity to make good on his considerable talent without the expectations that were heaped upon him due to his contract and draft selection. Much like Kane, one has to like Bogosian’s potential floor and ceiling as a player.

Jason Kasdorf

It’s tough to consider Kasdorf as anything more than a low-end prospect at this time. While he did manage to put up impressive numbers early on his collegiate career at R.P.I., his play has faltered as his team has struggled.

Kasdorf has good size (6-foot-4, 195 pounds), and perhaps the absence of high expectations will allow the soon-to-be 23-year-old goalie to properly develop at the collegiate and minor league level.

 

Here are the specific of the Sabres’ second deal on Wednesday, which came with Dallas as trade partners.

 

What the Sabres Gave Up

Jhonas Enroth

Although he hasn’t been on the team as long as Stafford, or played as consistently of important a role as Myers, I was far more saddened to see Enroth leave Buffalo.

More so than his departing teammates, Enroth’s struggles were largely related to the incompetent play around him. Throughout much of last season, and almost all of this season, Enroth has been consistently peppered with shots and high-quality scoring chances. Despite usually watching his teammates being vastly outmatched from a skill and competitiveness level, Enroth managed to compete every night that he was in net. Although Enroth’s numbers to date this season aren’t pretty (13-21-2, 3.27 GAA, .903 SV%), I don’t believe that his personal output is at all indicative of his own ability.

In Dallas, it appears Enroth will likely begin as the backup to Kari Lehtonen. However, with Lehtonen’s struggles this year being well documented, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Enroth wrestles the starting gig away from the incumbent. Personally, I hope that he does. Enroth has been stuck with bad luck and bad teams so far during his career. It’d be entirely rewarding for Jhonas to finally play for a good team in games that matter.

 

What the Sabres Received

Anders Lindback

This move symbolizes Tim Murray fully embracing the tank.

Lindback is not a good goalie.

In two seasons as Pekka Rinne’s backup in Nashville, Lindback greatly benefitted from playing under Barry Trotz. While his numbers weren’t extraordinary by any stretch of the imagination (2.60 and 2.42 GAA, .915 and .912 SV%) during those two years, Lindback was snatched up in a trade with Tampa Bay that netted the Preds two second-round picks and a third-round pick.

In Tampa Bay, Lindback failed to match the brief success he had in Nashville. Following two miserable seasons (2.90 GAA, .902 and .891 SV%), the Lightning decided against tendering him a contract, and the Stars signed him to one-year pact. After 10 more lackluster outings in Dallas to add to his resume, Tim Murray decided Lindback was the man he wanted in between the pipes to ensure a 30th place finish.

2016 Conditional Third-Round Pick

The pick is far more interesting than the player acquired in this deal. Murray, who has managed to insert creative stipulations into the picks he acquires during his time as general manager, did it again here in this deal.

If Enroth wins four playoff games for the Stars in this year’s playoffs, the draft selection becomes a second-round pick in 2016. So much like last year when the Sabres were rooting for the Blues because of potential conditional draft pick compensation; fans should root for the Stars in this year’s Western Conference playoffs.

 

In conclusion, it’s an exciting time to be a Buffalo Sabres fan. Although some local media curmudgeons are far more interested in continuing to harp on the negatives, and even the ethics and morality involved within the Sabres current struggles, it’s not hard to see that the foundation has been built for a team that should contend in the not-too-distant future.

The Sabres, despite dealing away two high quality prospects in Armia and Lemieux, have a prospect pool that remains deep with intriguing talent.

The Sabres, despite dealing away a first round pick to the Jets, will have at least four of the top 60 selections in a 2015 NHL Draft that’s regarded to be as deep as any prospect pool in recent memory.

The Sabres, despite recently spending money and taking on two sizable contracts, will have roughly $30 million in cap space to spend in free agency.

The Sabres, despite being the worst team in the NHL right now, have several interesting players on their NHL roster that could become valuable contributors next year and beyond.

Perhaps most intriguing of all, the Sabres are in the driver’s seat to select one of two prospects that are regarded as generational talents.

Humor me for a second and just imagine what our starting lineup looks like on opening night next season…

Goalies (2)

I have no idea. Maybe they re-sign Enroth, Neuvirth, or both. Maybe they sign a free agent (Antti Niemi? Braden Holtby?). Perhaps they aggressively pursue one via trade. Your guess is as good as mine.

Defenseman (6)

Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mark Pysyk, Zach Bogosian, Josh Gorges, and Mike Weber. Not Mentioned: Jake McCabe, Chad Ruhwedel, Possible Free Agent(s)

Forwards (12)

Evander Kane, Matt Moulson, Tyler Ennis, Brian Gionta, Zemgus Girgensons, Marcus Foligno, Nicolas Deslauriers, Sam Reinhart, Mikhail Grigorenko, Cody Hodgson, Cody McCormick, Brian Flynn. Not Mentioned: McEichel, Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching, JT Compher, Johan Larsson, Possible Free Agent(s)

 

Excuse me while I go wipe the drool off of my keyboard.

 

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