Tim Murray is a smart guy and the Sabres are clearly still in something of a rebuild mode. But given the moves this weekend, the end-date on that was moved up considerably.
People who would consider the Sabres “contenders” headed into next season are currently using a new and interesting definition of the word, but there's no doubt at all that this is a roster which has been significantly improved in a very short period of time. And how it all came together was genius.
That, by the way, is the benefit of doing what Murray did since he took the job: Trading everything that isn't nailed down, and some stuff that is, gets you a lot of draft picks and prospects.
A few of those first-round picks, in turn, were used as big pieces in the trades for Robin Lehner and Evander Kane (Ryan O'Reilly was acquired for the No. 31). The thing people often don't understand about first-round picks is that they're essentially lottery tickets with a good chance of paying off. When you include them in packages to acquire proven NHL talent, it's like selling those tickets for actual money.
Of course, that doesn't take into account that Kane comes pre-signed at a high dollar value, or that O'Reilly needs a new and likely expensive contract, nor does it count that the Sabres gave up Tyler Myers, Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko, and other assets. But proven, quality NHL players — even with high dollar values — are worth more than most high picks and good prospects.
How far has Buffalo come since the Kane trade? Well, this was the Sabres lineup for the final game of (guys in red are gone already, in blue are RFAs awaiting contracts, and green are UFAs):
Grigorenko and Zadorov were shipped out as part of the O'Reilly trade this past weekend, and fair enough. While you can argue Grigorenko never got a fair shake in Buffalo given his pedigree, Zadorov was a valued piece, that's the price of doing business for young, strong two-way centers like O'Reilly. You'd have to think most of those guys in green won't be asked back, and with the exception of Johan Larsson — who, let's be honest, doesn't get first-line minutes on any actual NHL team — the RFAs are probably not slotting into the opening-night lineup come October.
In fact, given the trades for O'Reilly and Robin Lehner, Murray effectively filled his NHL lineup with four actual NHLers instead whatever that was they were running out at the end of last season. This is a decent-ish guess at what the Sabres will ice coming out of training camp, bolstered by the healthy return of Evander Kane following last season's trade with Winnipeg (this also assumes the Cody Hodgson buyout happens):
Obviously that's a lineup with a lot of centers and not a lot of wings, but even if you want to shift guys around (“Get Reinhart off the wing, you idiot!” and so on), you see the point. Say what you like about the utility of Jamie McGinn and David Legwand — the throw-ins on the O'Reilly and Lehner deals — but they're certainly better options than Phil Varone and Patrick Kaleta. And there's always the eventuality that Jack Eichel returns to Boston University for a sophomore season, but regardless, this is by far a more competitive lineup.
And as much as people consider Legwand a salary dump, which he sorta-kinda is since Ottawa really didn't want to continue paying that contract, he may also have inherent value to the team beyond whatever he provides on the ice, because he himself is a former No. 2 pick on a team with two rather important ones. Not to go all “veteran leadership” on everyone, but a guy who made a career of being a strong two-way center and probably has some wisdom to impart might be good for the Eichels and Reinharts of the world, given that they, too, are high draft picks.
Doesn't mean he's worth the money — because he isn't — but Buffalo's not a cap team and they're rich as hell, so maybe they see better value in it than, say, if they go out and sign Shawn Horcoff or Daniel Briere. And hey, it's only $3 million for one season.
But the problem with saying that this team is better is simple: The Sabres were so much worse than the rest of the league last year that “better” probably doesn't begin to make them competitive for 2015-16. Even if they increased their goal total from last season (161) by one-third, they're still not at last year's league average (224). I really like those forward lines, but can they get an extra 60-plus goals from it? It'll be close. And again, that only gets them to league average. The median was 230.
There's also the concern about the defense and goaltending, because Buffalo gave up the second-most goals in the league last season (274). Now, to be fair, that was because they used five different goaltenders, and none of them are particularly good: Jhonas Enroth played 37 games, Michal Neuvirth 27, Anders Lindback 16, Matt Hackett five, and Andrey Makarov one. Remember, they traded their No. 1 goalie twice last year. Lehner obviously provides them a steady option now, and potentially years down the road, and Chad Johnson — who's decent — is the likely backup.
But the big question mark most people should be worried about is that blue line. Again, even if you want to shift guys around in that lineup, there's not a single top-pairing defenseman to be had. Zach Bogosian is probably the closest thing to that, and Zach Bogosian isn't particularly close to being a top-pairing defenseman. It's difficult to see Murray going out and making a deal for even a remotely impactful UFA, either, because those guys cost money, and Buffalo probably doesn't want to go around throwing away cap space five or six years from now when they're going to have Eichel, Girgensons, Reinhart, and so on to re-sign long-term (and at a huge price point) before then.
The reasonable thing to do here, then, is to go with a lineup that looks similar to what was outlined above. It is more competitive, and several of those young players might even take a step forward and help out beyond what their careers would indicate. O'Reilly has never gotten first-line minutes in the middle of the ice, and Kane has never really had someone as good as O'Reilly as his center. Lehner could succeed mightily (but given the defense in front of him...).
Again, you assume they stand more or less pat apart from re-signing their own RFAs, but that probably doesn't get them to real contention for the playoffs or anything like that. If they settle into the high single- or low-double digits at the draft next season, that's going to have been a huge step forward. They've clearly gone from outright, wanton tanking, to trying to build a contender. They're not there yet.
But all of this, if nothing else, is a bit of an eff-you to those who bemoaned their aggressive attempts to lose at every opportunity the last two seasons. They tanked, and in failing to win they succeeded in building a winner. They not only got a future All-Star center or two in the draft, but also sought and won high-value young players they could acquire for relatively cheap. Oh, and he grabbed a smart coach who has gone out of his way to learn a lot about the way the NHL is changing. But that's just a for-free thing.
This is the difference between a dumb, uncontrolled tank — think Edmonton over the last several years — and one that's calculated and carried out with brutal efficiency. Murray really couldn't have done much better than he did here. And again, given that the roster still has major issues, another high pick will probably still be coming his way next June as well (especially if Eichel stays at BU for one more season).
They're not out of the woods yet, but the Sabres can see sunlight poking through the thinning canopy. That has to be encouraging for all involved.