By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Sitting six points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot has put the 12th-place Sabres, a high-priced club built to win the Stanley Cup this season, in a precarious spot as today’s 3 p.m. NHL deadline approaches.
What the heck do they do? Are they buying or selling?
Right now, the Sabres are surging again, having won three straight last week. They’re 8-3-3 since their defense corps reached full strength, often performing like the legitimate contender many deemed them in the summer.
They just earned three of four points over the weekend against conference powers. Teams often use the days before the deadline to make their final assessments. Perhaps beating Boston and falling in New York to the Rangers in overtime could sway the Sabres into buying.
With 68 points, eighth-place Winnipeg is only on pace for 87, about five fewer than it normally takes to secure the final playoff spot. The Sabres have also played two fewer games than the Jets.
Darcy Regier didn’t speak to reporters last week, but the general manager said Friday on WGR 550 that the weekend “may play a role” in deciding the Sabres’ plans, “but it’s not everything.”
“The focus for us has to be on … how even in its finest form this team can be better moving forward, and if it means we have to take a little bit of a step back in the short term, then I would argue it’s worth it,” Regier told the radio station.
What does that mean? Could a core player, say underachieving forwards Derek Roy or Drew Stafford, be dealt for draft picks or prospects? Regier didn’t elaborate.
So far, teams have paid steep prices for talent.
On Friday, New Jersey gave Minnesota defenseman Kurtis Foster, forwards Nick Palmieri and Stephane Veilleux, a second-round selection and a conditional pick for defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who has zero goals, 14 points and a minus-6 rating in 41 games this season.
“People will come up to me and say, ‘Why don’t you play so and so for so and so?’ And I think, ‘My God, wouldn’t that be wonderful if we could do that?’” Regier said when asked a general question about acquiring top talent. “And (they ask), ‘Why don’t you get … top players in the league?’ The reality is they’re not available and you’re not going to get them.”
The Sabres, who have no salary cap space, desperately need scoring, especially down the middle, where their top threat, Roy, has 35 points. A veteran forward or more grit wouldn’t hurt, either.
Regier said getting a rental player, something that has burned them in the past, is “less likely this year.”
The Sabres have upcoming unrestricted free agents they could trade, most notably gritty veteran Paul Gaustad, who might be playing the best hockey of his seven-year career.
The 30-year-old’s one of the league’s premier faceoff men, can play center or the wing and is a top checker and penalty killer. In a seller’s market, he should bring at least a second-round pick. Someone could want him just to take draws.
But the Sabres appear to be trying to re-sign him.
Regier said Friday he had spoken to Gaustad’s representatives and they would talk again “no later than Sunday.” Gaustad has played his entire career with the Sabres and said last week he would like to stay.
Struggling forward Brad Boyes and concussed center Jochen Hecht are the Sabres’ unrestricted players.
At a prorated $4 million, someone could take a flier on Boyes, a former elite scorer with three goals in 47 games, for a low draft pick. The 29-year-old’s supreme shootout prowess – he has five scores in eight attempts – could be worth a win or two.
The 34-year-old Hecht, a strong two-way player at his best, is recovering from his third concussion in 10 months. A healthy Hecht might be worth a second-round pick.
Whatever happens, the deadline can be an anxious time for players. They’re only human, you know.
“I’ve been through this,” said Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold, who’s been traded at the deadline twice. “It’s one of those things if you start worrying about it, it affects how you live your day-to-day life. You don’t need that. Worrying gets you nowhere.”