The Buffalo Sabres should win the division with the roster they have — even with Ottawa creeping up in the standings. Buffalo may even be able to win a round or two without any major changes (and that’s true as long as Ryan Miller keeps up his superhuman play).
But General Manager Darcy Regier is in a position to go for it all this year and with a few tweaks, he could take the team from a dark horse Stanley Cup contender to one of the favorites.
We know it’s not typically Regier’s style to break the bank for a superstar rental. So you can all forget Ilya Kovalchuk. Most times he’ll go a little off the map to find the right player (the results are mixed but for every Dominic Moore or Bob Corkum there’s a Stu Barnes or Daniel Briere to make up for it).
Ideally, the Sabres would add a No. 1 center with an expiring contract who can win faceoffs and has a Cup ring. Unfortunately, I can’t find anyone on the trade block who fits that bill. The closest I can get is Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne and it doesn’t seem like they’d trade him unless the Ducks slip in the standings. In any trade, the Sabres would likely have to move Andrej Sekera, Toni Lydman or a prospect like Nathan Gerbe.
If the Sabres were going to make a trade today, they’ll probably be looking out West for someone to dance with. The gap between eighth place and 13th place in the Western Conference is currently six points while it’s a three-point differential between eighth and 13th in the East. If that stays true through the Olympic Break, teams in the East might be less willing to give up on the season.
The bottom four teams in the West right now are Minnesota, St. Louis, Columbus and Edmonton. In the East, the only teams that are really out of it are Carolina and Toronto.
Today let’s look at what the Sabres could trade for in Minnesota.
Darcy could be looking at Mikko Koivu ($3.25 million cap hit and the team’s leading scorer with 47 points) Owen Nolan ($2.75 million, 24 points), Andrew Brunette ($2.333 million, 39 points) and Eric Belanger ($1.75 million, 31 points). Each of these players is under contract through next season with the exception Nolan and Belanger. Those two will be unrestricted free agents this summer.
It’s unlikely the Wild would want to part with Koivu, their first round pick in 2001. And if contract negotiations hit a snag, it probably wouldn’t become an issue until next season. So trading for him is probably a pipe dream.
Nolan is an old cagey veteran. His role on the Sabres would probably be similar to the one Mike Grier currently holds. Nolan’s offensive numbers are a lot better than Grier’s however, and Grier never appeared on the cover of a video game. At 37, Nolan has shown that he can still produce and it probably wouldn’t cost much to acquire him.
Brunette is 36 and on pace to have his best season since 2006-07 when he was with the Avalanche. The winger has had some success in the playoffs with 34 points in 43 games. He’s set to make $2 million next season.
Belanger gives you the best bang-for-your buck but the 32-year-old is an unproven commodity in the playoffs. In 30 postseason games, Belanger has six points and is a minus-9. He is, however, eighth in the league in faceoff percentage, winning 57.8 percent of his draws. If I’m able to realistically purge anyone off the Wild, it might be Belanger.
He’s not the true No. 1 center the team needs, but he’s having a very good season and can play in all situations (even strength, shorthanded and on the powerplay). He’s a guy I would want on my team. Whether Regier and the Sabres scouting staff agrees is another story.