BUFFALO, N.Y. — It took Wayne Simmonds no more than five minutes into his first Sabres practice to show how much he appreciated being in Buffalo.
Upon skating a few laps and taking a couple of shots, Simmonds found himself next to coach Ralph Krueger when the two shared a laugh.
Given how he and the talent-laden New Jersey Devils failed to come close to meeting expectations through the first five months of the season, the 31-year-old Simmonds felt good to be back in the playoff hunt – however slim the Sabres’ chances might appear.
”Obviously things didn’t go the way I planned and as the Devils planned,” Simmonds said Tuesday, a day after being acquired by Buffalo.
”I don’t regret signing there one bit,” he added, referring to the one-year, $5 million contract he signed with the Devils last summer. ”But at the same time, I wanted an opportunity to be in the hunt for the playoffs, to play those competitive games. And this was a perfect opportunity for me.”
Perfect might not be the operative word for a Buffalo team that began the day six points out of contention with 20 games remaining. And yet it’s a better spot than New Jersey, where the Devils dropped out of the race and shed high-priced veterans to build for the future.
For whatever reasons, Simmonds’ leadership and physical play failed to make a difference in New Jersey, and the Sabres hope those qualities can provide a boost in their young team’s bid to remain competitive down the stretch.
The Sabres have gone 7-3-1 in their past 11 games before a difficult four-game trip, which opens at Colorado on Wednesday.
Buffalo’s surge led to general manager Jason Botterill adding talent to a team showing modest signs of growth rather than simply dumping players with expiring contracts.
Aside from landing Simmonds for a conditional fifth-round draft pick, the Sabres acquired 24-year-old forward Dom Kahun in a three-player trade with Pittsburgh.
Simmonds addresses Buffalo’s immediate needs, while Kahun has long-term potential on a team seeking to upgrade its top-six depth at forward.
Acknowledging the Sabres aren’t ”a finished product,” Botterill discussed his reasoning behind the trades by saying: ”We’ve talked a lot about playing meaningful games in March, and I think with some of the moves that we made, we’re hopefully setting our team up to better accept that challenge.”
Though Simmonds’ best years might be behind him, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound player is a prototypical power forward, who has scored 20 goals in six of his 12 NHL seasons. He also has developed a reputation of being a respected leader and drew praise from his former Devils teammates upon being traded.
With eight goals and 24 points in 61 games this year, Simmonds has a presence that is considered an upgrade on a team in need of secondary scoring. And his seven years of playoff experience are invaluable to a Sabres team in an eight-year postseason drought – the NHL’s longest active streak.
”He’s got an excellent spirit, brings good experience with him, loves to do things that we need more of with net pressure,” Krueger said. ”But above all, also the voice in the room he’ll be. He was already engaged today as if he’s been here a long time.”
Captain Jack Eichel welcomed the reinforcements as a sign of management’s faith in the team.
”I think the two additions sends a message to the room they believe in us as a group now,” Eichel said. ”I think it sends a message to the room we’re trying to go for this right now.”
Simmonds is now on his fourth team in a calendar year, after Philadelphia dealt him to Nashville at the trade deadline last season. He was so eager to come to Buffalo, which is closer to his family’s offseason home in Toronto, that Simmonds waived his no-trade clause to allow the deal to go through.
”It’s all in pursuit of the Cup. That’s my goal. I want to come here and I want to be a good piece of the team,” he said. ”I think they’re going in the right direction.”
The trade also presents Simmonds a chance to prove he’s worthy of being signed to a contract this summer, be it in Buffalo or elsewhere.
”Obviously, I’m not going to be the savior or anything here, but just another piece to help the boys out. That’s something I relish,” Simmonds said. ”I’ve always been a competitor my whole career. And this kind of stuff brings the best out of me.”
NOTES: Kahun will join the Sabres once they arrive in Colorado. … He’s listed as day to day after missing the Penguins’ past two games with a lower-body injury. . Kahun played with Krueger’s son, Justin, on Germany’s national team. He also played under Sabres assistant coach Don Granato when the two were in Chicago last season.