Look, when you nab the top pick of the draft, chances are you’re in a rebuild.
Whether they wanted to be in this spot again or not, the Buffalo Sabres certainly played like a rebuilding franchise once again in 2017-18, putting themselves in a position to win the Rasmus Dahlin lottery. The Swedish defenseman stands as quite the balm after this team’s been humiliated by multiple stunted attempts at growth.
Ryan O'Reilly clearly chafes at these stumbles.
He memorably opened up after this rough season, stating that he believed that the Sabres eventually adopted a “losing mindset.”
“It’s crept into all of our games. Yeah, it’s disappointing. It’s sad,” O’Reilly said in early April. “I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times, and just need to get back to it because it’s eating myself up, and eats the other guys up, too.”
When you utter a comment like that, it’s only natural to find your name in trade rumors. That’s especially true for an expensive player like O’Reilly, who carries a $7.5 million cap hit through 2022-23.
The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington reports that, while the Sabres are willing to listen to trade offers for anyone not named Jack Eichel or Casey Mittelstadt:
Botterill isn’t shopping O’Reilly, but the feeling here is he’s being prudent. If you call the Sabres GM these days, he’ll listen on anybody you’re asking about except Eichel and Mittelstadt. Montreal and Vancouver are well-known to be interested in O’Reilly, and Carolina is looking to completely retool its team under new owner Tom Dundon.
I must agree with Harrington’s overall point that the Sabres shouldn’t trade “ROR.” At least, not right now.
Allow me to expand among that sentiment.
Back in March, The Athletic’s James Mirtle discussed (sub required) “how the Maple Leafs’ rebuild left the Sabres’ in the dust.” Mirtle and others have praised Toronto for rebuilding in a smart fashion: tearing away the fat, keeping useful prime-age players, and then crossing your fingers that you’ll get lucky and land some blue-chip players.
In that analogy, I believe that Ryan O’Reilly could be Buffalo’s (admittedly more expensive) answer to Nazem Kadri.
O’Reilly might not be a star player, but he’s the type of two-way center that teams need in the playoffs. His possession stats and faceoff skills, all while taking on some tough assignments, point to his potential to battle for Selke nominations if he can find himself on better teams. The Sabres should make it a point that he finds himself on better teams in Buffalo.
“ROR” has generated 20+ goals in four of his last five seasons, generating at least 55 points in all five. That might not blow your mind, but that sort of production is very helpful, especially when you consider how much of a “plus” player he is from a defensive standpoint.
At 27, he’s still smack-dab in the middle of his prime, and his contract doesn’t provide too many worries from an “aging curve” perspective. It only looks bad when your team is floundering, as the Sabres have been … but might not be forever.
The most obvious upgrade is the one that inspires some level of tentativeness: Dahlin should help their defense. Considering how bad that blueline group has been, it’s not outrageous to picture the much-hyped prospect to immediately step into an important role.
There will be growing pains, no doubt, yet Buffalo’s already given up one of its few, reliable scorers in (understandably and inevitably but painfully) trading away Evander Kane. If you want to make real progress, you need to add more than you subtract. The Sabres need to get back on that wavelength rather than taking more steps back, as they’d do if they traded O’Reilly for futures.
Speaking of futures …
One thing that alleviates much of the discomfort of the O’Reilly price tag is the bountiful young talent in Buffalo.
Dahlin would be on his entry-level contract for three seasons, almost certainly burning off his first in 2018-19. Mittelstadt’s rookie deal will expire after 2019-20. If Alex Nylander can get on track and at least be an everyday NHL player, that’s another ELC to Buffalo’s benefit.
Sam Reinhart showed signs of progress lately, and it’s plausible that the Sabres will reach an affordable deal with the RFA. Buffalo also will see some problem contracts burn off soon, as Jason Pominville‘s $5.6M goes away after 2018-19 and Zach Bogosian‘s $5.1M mark mercifully dissolves after two more seasons.
Getting cheap production from Dahlin, Mittelstadt, (ideally) Nylander, and possibly Reinhart nullifies much of the hand-wringing over how much O’Reilly costs.
And the Sabres can make him more worth keeping by adding more talent around him.
They’ll need to address their goaltending situation one way or another, whether that means re-signing promising RFA Robin Lehner, finding someone else, or possibly a combination of two.
Considering that Buffalo currently only has just $55.8M committed to the cap (via Cap Friendly), it’s conceivable that they could make a big splash. How does John Carlson feel about sweaters and snow tires?
Now, there’s the possibility that some team would offer a truly equitable trade.
If it was a pure “hockey trade,” than Buffalo would have to at least consider moving O’Reilly. Getting a strong defenseman would possibly be worth parting ways with an effective-but-expensive second-line center.
Overall, though, the Sabres need to move forward rather than falling back or taking lateral steps. As much as landing Dahlin (er, “the first pick”) brightens Buffalo’s future, it also makes a strong argument against punting the present.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.