The Sabres find themselves in an interesting position as the trade deadline approaches. With 60 games played, Buffalo is four points out of a playoff spot, but, according to THN’s playoff predictions, the Sabres have about a six percent shot at actually making it to the post-season. Stranger things have happened, but with the deadline eight days away, the Sabres have to decide whether they want to buy, sell or stand pat.
The most realistic scenario sees Buffalo GM Tim Murray take stock of what he currently has on his roster and decide how he can make his team better in the future by selling at the deadline. That’s to say Murray should be focused on shipping out expiring contracts or assets deemed non-essential to the future of the club and building for next season. This Sabres team isn’t ready to compete for a Stanley Cup — at least not yet — so no use going all-in at the expense of the rebuild.
That means players such as Dmitry Kulikov, Cody Franson and Derek Grant could very well be trade chips come March 1. All have expiring contacts and serve to be potential rental pieces as the post-season approaches. Captain Brian Gionta could also be added to that list, but he’s reportedly told the team he would prefer to stick around. The most interesting name on the roster, however, isn’t a rental in the traditional sense. That said, Evander Kane, with one year remaining on his deal after this season, could start to draw increased interest due to his recent performance.
Kane has had the Midas touch of late, especially over his past eight games. He’s scored seven goals over that span, all of which have come at even strength. It hasn’t just been this eight-game run, however. His scoring has picked up significantly as the season has progressed. In the past month, for instance, Kane is a point per game player with nine goals and 13 points in 13 games. Since the start of January, Kane has 13 goals and 19 points in 23 outings. Once on pace to finish the year with roughly than 20 goals and 35 points, Kane is now looking to near the 30-goal, 50-point mark for the first time since the 2011-12 season, which was his third in the league.
There’s also the matter of Kane contributing alongside a pair of youngsters, Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. The trio has produced a combined 15 goals and 37 points over the past four weeks. And Kane has also continued to show he can log and be effective in big minutes, as his place as one of Dan Bylsma’s favorite forwards hasn’t changed, either. Kane has averaged upwards of 19 minutes per game over the past month, third behind Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly, and Kane ranks fourth in average ice time among all Sabres forwards over the course of the season.
Really, for the first time since he was acquired in a blockbuster, eight-player deal in February 2015, Kane is providing what the Sabres wanted out of him and hoped they would get. And that’s exactly the reason why some teams who may have been scared off pursuing the winger earlier in the year might circle back around and check in with Murray now.
However, despite the early season rumbles that Kane was on the block, it seems Murray has stepped back from sell mode. In interviews with WGR 550, both TSN’s Darren Dreger and ESPN’s Craig Custance reported that Kane’s name is out there in trade speculation, but that a deal is only really there to be made if the package is such that Murray can’t really turn it down. And despite all the off-ice happenings, from legal difficulties to the scratch due to oversleeping, that have made some Sabres fans want to see Kane shipped out, Murray would be right to hang on to the 25-year-old if it means potentially landing a better return in one year’s time.
Think of it this way: if Kane’s production over the past two months carries over into the 2017-18 campaign, he could be a near 30-goal scorer and 50-plus point producer by the time next season’s deadline rolls around. Not only does having Kane playing at such a high level stand to benefit the Sabres in their pursuit of a playoff berth. Given his big minutes, ability to break a game open with his speed and shot and fit alongside Eichel and Reinhart, he’s a weapon the Sabres could use. But then, come the deadline, it would be time for the Sabres to start listening to offers.
As next season winds down, so does Kane’s contract. At that point, he’s a true rental and the number of teams willing to pay up for him might increase as they’d be free of the contract if they so choose come the 2018-19 campaign. And it is quite the contract. Kane’s cap hit is $5.25 million for both this season and next, meaning any team competitive enough to want to land him might want the Sabres to take back some salary in the deal. Retaining salary on Kane this year means less money to spend in the off-season for Buffalo. That’s not an issue come next deadline, however, with the deal expiring only months after any potential trade.
Not only that, but trading Kane next year, regardless of what position the Sabres are in, stands to help the team recoup some of the assets that were lost in acquiring him. It would also be worthwhile because, at this point, the likelihood Kane remains in Buffalo beyond next season seems slim. Again, despite the off-ice issues that have plagued him in the past few years, Kane will have his share of suitors and he’ll be free to go to any of the clubs willing to pony up the cash.
It only makes sense then that Murray should be playing the long game with Kane and eying up next deadline, or close to it, as the time to ship the winger out. While there are no doubt other factors at play come next season, that Kane has seemingly started to hit his offensive stride seems to bode well for the chances of a repeat performance. And if he’s flirting with 30 goals come the next deadline, he stands to be one of the hottest assets available for next season’s playoff push.
(Ed. Note: Cody McCormick was listed as a free agent-to-be. McCormick was forced to retire due to blood clots last season.)
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