Six points behind the Boston Bruins for the second of two wild-card slots, the Buffalo Sabres are technically as close as they've been to a postseason berth at this point in a season in quite some time.
Such is existence in the bunched bottom tier inside the Eastern Conference, where fans and executives, if not careful, can be easily deceived by the false parity tied to more and more games distributing three points.
But the reality is this: the Sabres need to outperform eight teams in the final two months just to earn the right to run into the Washington Capitals' buzz saw in the first round.
Instead, the Sabres should look to unload in this season’s sellers’ market. But what can they realistically accomplish?
Projected cap space: $1.46 million
Current cap space: $4.5 million
Number of contracts: 43/50
Number of pending free agents: 11 (7 unrestricted)
Since the start of December, when he discovered his form after his return from broken ribs suffered on opening night, only five players have more goals than Kane. It’s a bit of an arbitrary point of reference, sure, and his environment is certainly contributing to his performance. But regardless, Kane’s value hasn’t been as high as it is right now.
Unfortunately, that increase is also affected, in large part, by the fact that he’s inching closer to the end of his long-term contract. Kane’s known clashes with teammates and problems outside the rink are risks that a would-be buyer is more likely to consider accepting on a short-term basis.
With another season remaining on a contract that pays him a little more than $5 million annually, the Sabres should entertain the discussion, but not shove Kane out the door.
The decision to deal Mark Pysyk for the veteran Kulikov hasn’t worked out for Buffalo. Pysyk’s given the Florida Panthers strong shot-suppressing minutes at the bottom of the rotation, while Kulikov, a pending unrestricted free agent, has been driven back into his own end in his 28 games.
It won’t be a good look if Tim Murray accepts a lesser asset than Pysyk at the trade deadline, but it would likely save the club from investing big money in a player trending in the wrong direction.
If there’s interest – and there will be – Kulikov should move along.
The Sabres’ captain is another pending unrestricted free agent, but one less likely to move. Gionta has no-move agreement in his contract, isn’t believed to be interested in fleeting affiliation, and simply cannot provide the same value as other potential acquisitions in the same $4-million-plus salary bracket.
Gionta's on track to have his best offensive season since joining the Sabres, and, incredibly, leads the team in production rate. But the ice remains tilted against him more often than not.
If his intangibles interest another executive, the Sabres should present Gionta with the option, gleefully retain salary, and, if they so choose, welcome him back in the summer. But it’s a long shot.
Foligno’s an interesting case. He has one goal and zero assists in the last 10 games while primarily being deployed with Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart.
He’s a player commonly put in situations to produce, but ultimately has failed to boost his value leading into a restricted free-agent summer. In the end, this could be a beneficial situation for the Sabres, who, if the season ended now, would maintain leverage in negotiations this summer.
But if there's a reluctance to award him a raise on his $2.25-million salary, and something of value is served up in return, the Sabres may decide to let another team – one less interested in a strict rental – establish his price moving forward.
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