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Sabres among teams focused on trade market over free agency

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Realizing how difficult it is to lure free agents to Buffalo, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has spent the past two-plus years relying on trades to stock his roster with established talent.

It happened two years ago, when he acquired defenseman Marco Scandella from Minnesota. Botterill did it once again last summer, when Buffalo gave up a prospect and three draft picks to land 40-goal-scorer Jeff Skinner from Carolina.

Though not all the trades have panned out, such as dealing playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly to the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues a year ago, it’s a process Botterill expects to continue this summer in a bid to transform the Sabres into contenders.

”We felt that we were close on some of the discussions,” Botterill said after signing four minor-leaguers on the first day of NHL free agency Monday.

”But as much as we want players to be part of it, and help us with our immediate needs, there has to be a balance, and there has to be a situation where we’re not making signings that are going to be detrimental to us in the future.”

In other words, the Sabres weren’t in a position to overpay for players in free agency, which is why Botterill is placing his focus on the trade market. With the salary cap set at a lower-than-expected $81.5 million, he anticipates some teams pressed for payroll space to be forced to shed talent through trades.

”In a cap world, there’s only so much you can give to players,” Botterill said.

”I never would’ve guessed that we would’ve picked up a player like Jeff Skinner in the middle of summer last year,” he added. ”But I think it’s important that we have dialogues throughout the league to see whenever that might materialize, whether it’s later on this week, a couple of weeks or the start of September.”

Botterill’s approach has already paid off.

On Friday, Buffalo gave up two draft picks to acquire defenseman Colin Miller from the cap-strapped Vegas Golden Knights. On Monday, the most significant move the Sabres made was landing third-year center Jimmy Vesey from the New York Rangers, who freed up cap space to sign free agent Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract.

It’s Botterill’s belief players will find there is more to the perception that Buffalo is just a Rust Belt city stuck in an eight-year stretch without a playoff appearance once they get an opportunity to get a taste of living and playing in the city. That was the case with Skinner, who often noted how he was impressed by the passionate fans. It didn’t hurt that the Sabres re-signed him to an eight-year, $72-million contract last month.

And it’s something the Sabres hope eventually resonates with Miller, who acknowledged having “mixed emotions” over leaving Vegas for Buffalo.

The situation is similar in places such as Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and even Montreal, where the Canadiens have rebuilt their team mostly through trades and the draft. And when the Canadiens lost out on landing free-agent center Matt Duchene on Monday, they resorted to the rare option of trying to poach Sebastian Aho from Carolina by signing the restricted free agent to an offer sheet.

The move is expected to fail after the Hurricanes on Tuesday announced they intend to match the offer.

Of the past seven offer sheets made since 2007, five have come from Canadian-based teams.

The difficulty some teams have in attracting players is reflected in where the top free agents landed Monday. Panarin headed to the Big Apple, Duchene chose Nashville over Montreal, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky ended up with Florida.

And Canadian-based teams have an even more challenging time attracting talent.

As former Flames president Brian Burke told The Associated Press in April, numerous players – including Canadians – don’t prefer playing north of the border for several reasons. The first is the lack of privacy and amount of pressure placed on them in many Canadian markets. The second is Canada’s taxation rate.

In Buffalo, Botterill also isn’t prepared to make the same mistakes his most recent predecessors did in attempting to make major splashes in free agency.

There are many examples of free-agency busts, and include Matt Moulson playing out the final 2+ years of his five-year, $25 million contract on loan with the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign. Then there was Ville Leino having his six-year, $27 million contract bought out two years after he signed it.

”I think with where we are as a team, we have to be ready on both fronts,” Botterill said of his approach entering free agency this summer. ”We’re certainly going to be at least in discussions with some free agents for sure. … But we have to be ready to see if trade possibilities arise.”

NOTES: The Buffalo signed restricted free agent C.J. Smith to a two-year, $1.4 million contract Tuesday. … In free agency Monday, Buffalo signed G Andrew Hammond, D John Gilmour and F Curtis Lazar to one-year, $700,000 contracts, and Jean-Sebastien Dea to a two-year, $1.4 million contract.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Weber’s comeback year; Where should Bolts upgrade?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• If the Predators continue struggling, they’ll have to ask themselves some tough questions. (The Hockey News)

• There’s several reasons why there should be concern in Winnipeg, according to Travis Yost. (TSN.ca)

• The Jets have an issue on defense and there’s no easy way to address it. (Arctic Hockey)

Chris Tanev has helped Quinn Hughes settle into the NHL. (Sportsnet)

Shea Weber is having a great comeback season and people around the NHL are noticing. (The Score)

• Dave Andreychuk answered five questions from NHL.com. (NHL)

Boone Jenner is playing big defensive minutes for Columbus, but is that working out? (The Cannon)

• How have the Bruins done in their own end this season? (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• It’s officially time to call the Canadiens sellers. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Which position should Lightning GM Julien BriseBois consider upgrading before the trade deadline? (Raw Charge)

• The Coyotes added Taylor Hall via trade in December. Is it time for them to keep buying? (Five For Howling)

• On the Forecheck breaks down the untouchables and the tradable players on the Preds roster. (On the Forecheck)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Blues edge Flames in shootout; Eichel sets new career high

The St. Louis Blues celebrate their 5-4 shootout win over the Calgary Flames
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Three Stars

1) David Perron, St. Louis Blues

After making the All-Star Game for the first time in his NHL career, Perron started the second half of the season with a two-game point streak. He added a goal, an assist and a shootout tally as the Blues defeated the Flames 5-4 in a back-and-forth battle that ended in the skills competition. The 31-year-old forward notched his 22nd of the season when he hammered home a loose puck in front to knot the game at 2-2 late in the first period. Perron also made a nifty pass to help St. Louis exit the zone before Zach Sanford tied the game early in the final frame. Additionally, the Blues snapped a three-game losing streak.

2) Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

The Flames alternate captain is still a bit behind his 82-point total pace from last year after surpassing his previous career-high by 18 points set the season before. Monahan remains a critical piece in the Flames’ lineup as they prepare for a playoff push in the tightly contested Pacific Division. The 25-year-old recorded his 400th career point when he snapped off a wrist shot from the slot at 15:43 of the first period to give Calgary a 2-1 lead at the time. He would go on to record his second of the game, another wrister from the slot, early in the middle frame to even the score at 3-3.

3) Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators

It’s not often an empty-net goal helps an NHL player land on this list, but Borowiecki’s game-sealing tally late in the third period was quite the play in the Senators’ 5-2 win against the Sabres. Ottawa’s alternate captain willingly went down on one knee in order to block a one-timer from Marcus Johansson to help preserve a one-goal lead at the time. After the block, Borowiecki quickly gathered himself, collected a loose puck and fired it off the boards into the empty cage. The Senators lead the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals.

Highlights of the Night

Blues forward Robert Thomas feathered a beautiful cross-ice pass between a couple of Calgary Flames to set up Alexander Steen to open the scoring.

In his 500th NHL game, Jaden Schwartz recorded his 17th of the season when he redirected a pretty pass from Brayden Schenn.

[RELATED: Predators facing difficult road in playoff push | How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division]

Blooper of the Night

Who should get credit for this empty-net goal?

Stat of the Night

Scores

Ottawa Senators 5, Buffalo Sabres 2

St. Louis Blues 5, Calgary Flames 4 (SO)

Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour arrested on mischief, public intoxication charges

former Dallas Star and NHL alumnus Ed Belfour
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Hockey Hall of Famer Ed Belfour was arrested early Tuesday morning. The former NHL goaltender caused damage to a downtown Bowling Green hotel.

Police found the 54-year-old inside the Kentucky Grand Hotel and Spa around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the Bowling Green Daily News said, citing the arrest report. He was arrested on charges of third-degree criminal mischief and alcohol intoxication in a public place, according to the citation. He was booked into the Warren County Regional Jail just before 3 a.m. Tuesday, according to the jail’s website.

According to report, he was “manifestly under the influence of alcohol to a point he was a danger to himself and others.”

Police responded to a complaint of an intoxicated person after Belfour tried to fight an employee and struck glass in anger. When cops arrived on the scene, they found Belfour on the second floor, kicking a spa door while “clutching a curtain rod that had been ripped out of the dry wall above a window next to him,” according to the report.

When detained, Belfour was not compliant with officers.

Belfour won the Stanley Cup in 1999 with the Dallas Stars and captured an Olympic gold medal during the 2002 Winter Games as a member of Team Canada. He currently sits in fourth place on the NHL all-time wins list.

How the Canucks climbed to top of Pacific Division

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For the first time in five years Vancouver Canucks fans have reason to be excited about their team. They are the hottest team in the NHL right now, and with their 3-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Monday night are 12-3-0 over their past 15 games. That run has helped them climb to the top of the Pacific Division and put them in a position where they have a very good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

While it is true that the Pacific Division is very watered down this season — especially with the struggles of Vegas and San Jose — the Canucks still have something building here. They are exciting, they can score, and as of Monday have the third-best goal differential in the Western Conference.

Let’s take a look at what is driving their success so far this season.

Quinn Hughes has been better than advertised

Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are the young cornerstones at forward, but Hughes is the player that’s really helped get this rebuild running in the right direction.

He may not win the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year, but he is almost certainly going to be Vancouver’s third straight finalist (following Boeser and Pettersson) as he competes with fellow rookie defenseman Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche) for that crown. He’s already a 20-minute per night defenseman and fills one of the single biggest needs the Canucks have had the past couple of years — a young, impactful, top-pairing defenseman to lead their blue line. He’s the type of player that as soon as you watch him you know he’s going to be a star with the way he skates, moves the puck, and contributes to the offense.

But what’s really made him such a valuable piece is that he is able to do all of that while still being the team’s best defensive defenseman as a 20-year-old rookie. When he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play this season the Canucks are allowing the following:

  • 52.3 shot attempts per 60 minutes
  • 28.2 shots on goal per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 expected goals against per 60 minutes
  • 27.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes
  • 2.24 goals against per 60 minutes

Those numbers not only place him first among all Canucks defenders in every category, he is first by a significant margin in all of them.

(Data via Natural Stat Trick)

J.T. Miller has been the perfect support player

It’s been no secret the past two years that Boeser and Pettersson were the two players driving the bus for the Canucks offensively, and they still are.

It’s also no secret that two players alone can not carry a team on their own. And while the Canucks still have some depth concerns, Miller has been everything the Canucks could have hoped for him to be and more.

They raised some eyebrows when they traded a future first-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for him, but it’s hard to argue with the results right now.

He is in the middle of a career year and currently on pace for more than 30 goals and 70 points, while also being one of the best possession-driving forwards in the entire league.

They paid a steep price, and the trade definitely carried some risk, but he is signed long-term, at a fair price, and has been a perfect fit within the core, while also being young enough to be a part of that core in future seasons. I was not a huge fan of the move at the time, but at some point you have to start adding talent to make your rebuild actually get somewhere. The Canucks have done that here.

Jacob Markstrom has been a rock in net

Markstrom hasn’t been one of the league’s elites in net, but he has been a rock solid starter since taking over that position in Vancouver. He may not steal a ton of games, but he’s not losing many games for them, either. He’s been a steady, and durable goalie that has consistently given them better-than-league average play the past few years. He has been even better this season.

While Hughes has been an immediate sensation on the blue line, this team still has its flaws defensively and gives up its share of shots and chances. They’re not yet a championship-level defensive team, and that makes quality goaltending even more vital for their chances. Markstrom is giving them that, and in the process is playing his way toward what could be a pretty significant raise this offseason.

MORE:
NHL Power Rankings: Looking at top Stanley Cup Contenders
The 6 coaches and general managers that can impact NHL playoff race
The 10 players that can impact NHL playoff race

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.