|Miller in his well deserved "Golden Helmet"|
They always manage to pull me back in. My last post about the Sabres claimed that it was a 'new season' since the Sabres had climbed back to .500, 19-19-5. They subsequently went on a losing streak. Alright, season done. Then they went on a win streak. We're back! Then they lost a couple more in a row. Back to tanking. And now they've gone on another win streak. They're 27-27-8 now, in 12th place, seven points out of the playoffs and four points out of the cellar. They've (vaguely) remained in the playoff picture throughout all this tumultuousness because a solid 8th seed hasn't established itself at this point. There are three teams battling for the Southeastern Division, one who will automatically get the 3rd seed while the other two have to fight for the eighth seed. There's the slipping Maple Leafs (one of the few solaces to this Sabres season so far has been the Leafs fall from the playoffs at this point), the Lightning, and then the Sabres. Right behind the Sabres are the Hurricanes (shudder) and the Islanders, while the Canadiens sit at the bottom, barely hanging on, one of the few true sellers at the deadline. I was originally going to say that the Hurricanes and the Islanders were 'out of it,' but really, they're only a point behind the Sabres. We're in exactly the same boat.
For all intents and purposes, the Sabres are in a no man's land- in between playoff contention and tanking for a better draft pick. There are twenty games from here on out, and, according to advanced statistics, a 2.2% chance of making the playoffs. So what did the Sabres do for the deadline? Sell out or go all in for a playoff run?
The Sabres did a little of both. They still have the capability to make a playoff run, but they've also improved their future prospects immensely. First, they traded Paul Gaustad to Nashville for a first round pick, which is an absolute steal. Gaustad was valuable to the Sabres for his penalty killing and defensive prowess- but he was definitely not worth a first round pick. The thin trade market jacked up his value, and GM Darcy Regier was able to get the price he wanted for Gaustad. Plus, he's a free agent this offseason- he could easily be resigned. The team loses some size, but other players like Tropp and Kaleta can make up for that.
The other, bigger move was the trade with Vancouver, where the Sabres traded Zack Kassian for Cody Hodgson (also, Marc Andre Gragnani and Alexander Sulzher changed places- they'll both be spending plenty of time in the luxury boxes as scratches.) Kassian is a big, beefy power forward type player, but his physical ability has been overrated- his time in the NHL has been marked by passivity and a lack of touch around the net, with less physicality than was expected. In 27 games in the NHL, he's accrued seven points, and probably needs more seasoning. Still, the Canucks thought that they lacked size up front and decided that Kassian could be their "Milan Lucic" type player. Somehow the Sabres were able to extract Cody Hodgson from the Canucks in exchange. Hodgson is a rookie center who's a possible Rookie of the Year candidate. Stuck behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler on the depth chart, Hodgson has picked up 33 points with third line minutes. The Sabres have been looking for a center since Briere and Drury left (sorry Derek Roy, YOU ARE NOT IT), and Hodgson has the potential to be a top flight center in the league. He's not there yet, but the increased playing time in Buffalo might be able to speed up his development.
So, the Sabres switched out Paul Gaustad, Zack Kassian and (thank God) Marc Andre Gragnani for a first round pick, Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzher (Sulzher is already seeing the pressbox as I write this. Welcome to the depth chart!). They lost some size but added some scoring. I'd argue that these trades aren't so devastating that the Sabres can't make a miracle playoff run anymore- their top lines are basically intact. Even if we don't make the playoffs, which seems more probable, the team is set up nicely for the future. Hodgson slots in nicely as a top 6 center, something the Sabres are in desperate need of. (As Darcy Regier said, center is the 2nd hardest position to fill in the NHL, and they just got a blue-chipper.) They also picked up another first round pick, giving them two firsts and two seconds for the upcoming draft. This gives them the flexibility to either trade up in the draft for some NHL ready top-tier talent or package picks and a player (like Drew Stafford or Derek Roy) for a better player. The Sabres basically maneuvered the trade deadline such that they do better in the short and long run.
Now, I've presented a pretty optimistic view of these trades. Of course, there are some reservations. As I said before, Gaustad was crucial to the penalty kill and was one of the best faceoff men in the league, which will be tough to replace. He also was an emotional leader of the team, something the Sabres seem to be lacking. Hodgson, as the criticism goes, has racked up his stats against weaker third lines and defenses, and might not do as well in a top role. And Kassian might eventually develop into a Todd Bertuzzi type, and the Sabres might regret trading him away. The first round pick from Nashville will likely be in the mid twenties, so unless we package it, it might not bring in any top talent. So yeah, there's a glass half empty look at it as well. But I can't help being excited at this point. The Sabres made some good moves.
I don't know why, but 7 points back seems like a huge hurdle. But if they win and get 5 back, I start to get hopeful again. It shouldn't be that big of a difference. But if they keep up this more consistent play (especially from Ryan Miller) and make a run, I know I'll be watching every second of the way. For the short term chase and the long term future.