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Why the recent trade action is only the beginning for the Flames and Sabres

After executing an earlier swap with the Canadiens, the Sabres acquired Michael Frolik from the Flames in exchange for a fourth-round pick. And that deal is likely only the beginning of what could be a busy few weeks in Buffalo and Calgary.

So, it’s trades you wanted? Then it's trades you will get. With the NHL’s holiday roster freeze over and big-league clubs able to wheel and deal once again, there was a flurry of interconnected trade action Thursday that involved four teams, four players, two draft picks and a partridge in a pear tree. OK, fine, the holidays are over, so scratch that last one. But you get the idea.

Following the details of the trades – plural – is a bit like keeping an eye on a bouncing puck, but the deals shook out as such: First, the Montreal Canadiens sent defenseman Mike Reilly to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for AHL winger Andrew Sturtz and a 2021 fifth-round pick. Next, the Canadiens used their newfound cap space to acquire defenseman Marco Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres for a 2020 fourth-round pick that previously belonged to the San Jose Sharks. And that fourth-round pick was subsequently shuffled along to the Calgary Flames, who sent winger Michael Frolik the Sabres’ way to complete the four-team swap meet.

Got all that? Good. Now you can basically forget about the impacts for all but two of the teams involved.

For the Senators’ part, the deal was about getting cost certainty on a blueliner who can stick in the lineup next season, as Reilly has one year remaining on a deal that pays him $1.5 million. That’s a paltry sum to pay a rearguard who can skate bottom-pairing minutes, making him a fit in Ottawa given the organization’s current spending practices. Meanwhile, the Canadiens picked up another helping hand on the back end, though Scandella, whose deal expires after this season, is likely to be no more than a fourth defenseman. Neither the Senators or Canadiens are the teams we’re here to talk about, though, because frankly, Ottawa is headed for a basement finish and Montreal GM Marc Bergevin is more likely to stay the course than he is to trade futures to make a splashy acquisition. (That's not to mention the bargain signing of Ilya Kovalchuk takes care of some of the injury-related need.)

That brings us to the Flames and Sabres.

From a Calgary standpoint, there are two aspects of Thursday’s move worth addressing. The first is that it finally brought closure to Frolik’s time with the franchise, which has been winding down for some time now. It was speculated (read: all but confirmed) that he was nearly moved at the trade deadline last season in what would have been a swap for Minnesota Wild winger Jason Zucker. That trade fell through, of course, but Frolik’s name has remained in the rumor mill since, and his move to Buffalo puts an end to that as he skates out the final year of his five-year, $21.5-million pact.

Primarily, though, what the move affords Calgary is cap space. Sweet, sweet cap space. By trading Frolik – and without retaining a single, solitary cent of his deal – the Flames opened up $4.3 million in the budget and now have a little north of $4.7 million with which to operate. Calgary GM Brad Treliving made clear, too, that his desire is to use the newfound spending room to provide his roster with an upgrade. And an upgrade might be just what the Flames need.

Merely keeping pace with the top dogs in their division after finishing atop the Pacific by six points last season, Calgary hasn’t met expectations and could certainly use another offensive piece with the big guns, particularly the fresh-off-a-career-year Johnny Gaudreau, struggling to find the same form as last season. As a result of the struggles of the projected top scorers, an offense that tied for second in the NHL with 3.52 goals per game last season ranks 24th this season and has mustered 2.67 goals per game. The good news is there are potential reinforcements available for the attack that could come in under budget for the Flames. Pending unrestricted free agent forwards Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Chris Kreider and Tyler Toffoli all carry cap hits that would allow Calgary to make a deal without moving additional dollars out.

It may just so happen that the players the Flames pursue, though, are the same ones in which the Sabres could have interest. Though Buffalo has been leaky defensively, giving up the eighth-most goals against per game, the Sabres are also scoring the eighth-fewest goals per game and the offense has been dependent on Jack Eichel and Jack Eichel and Jack Eichel. Others have chipped in, to be sure, as Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson (who is sidelined for at least five weeks with a lower-body injury) are 30-point players, but there’s not a single Sabres forward beyond those three who have eclipsed the 20-point plateau.

Assuredly, the thought process behind the Frolik acquisition is that he can relieve the pressure on the top unit. The now-former Flames winger was averaging nearly 16 goals and 39 points per 82 games across the three seasons prior to the current campaign. That's enough to make him a useful secondary scorer. But if Buffalo wants further help, and particularly a secondary scorer who can fill in for Olofsson and truly take some of the onus off of the top unit, it’s likely there’s more pure offensive upside in a player such as Pageau, Kreider or Toffoli.

There is an extra wrinkle to the Sabres’ situation, however. Their roughly $2.2 million in cap space is hardly enough to add any of the more sought after scoring options on the market, at least not without some help by way of salary retention. But what makes Buffalo an intriguing team moving forward beyond their possible interest in adding another option up front is that they also have a few players who are seeking trades. Defenseman Zach Bogosian and winger Evan Rodrigues reportedly want out of Buffalo, and with a combined cap hit of $7.14 million, shedding the salaries by selling for cheap or including both or either in a swap gives the Sabres the option to acquire more financial flexibility.

One way or another, though, it seems certain we’ll hear from the Flames and Sabres once again, be it ahead of the deadline or in the not-too-distant future. Calgary has aspirations of Stanley Cup contention, ones they’re not ready to stash away for the season, and Buffalo has their sights set on ending a playoff drought that has dragged on far too long. And given the results through the first half of the season, the only way either team will reach their goals this season is by going back to the trade market.

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