It’s mid-October and the Buffalo Sabres are 1st place in the National Hockey League after a 6-1-1 start. That means everything is running smoothly, right? Sure, things are going well, but things certainly could be going better. Some hot shooting and some very hot goaltending has helped them win close battles as well as games that they had no business walking away with a point from. Carter Hutton certainly will not be able to maintain a .952 SV% at 5v5 for the whole season and Victor Olofsson will not be able to maintain his 32% shooting. When the going gets rough the Sabres have to be prepared for it.
Outside of player utilization, the easiest thing to fix on this Sabres team is the top nine winger situation. The Mittelstadt-Vesey line has been brutal with an xGF% of 39.7 this season. Even the Sabres top line has been out-chanced with a 41.1 CF% and 45 xGF%. While the second line has been decent this year, I would still love to see an upgrade over Vladimir Sobotka in that #2 RW spot. These top three forward lines are clearly in need of some shaking up.
Fortunately for the Sabres, this forward deficiency does not have to be solved in-house as they have great defensive depth as well as a solid assortment of prospects who can be traded for some offensive help.
Out of the defensemen that can realistically be traded, Rasmus Ristolainen certainly holds the most value. He may not have the best underlying numbers during 5v5 play, but the former 8th overall pick can still quarterback the power play, play physical and has a right-handed shot to boot. If Jason Botterill plays his cards right, he could get a solid player in return.
Winnipeg has seen the decimation of their blueline after a rough offseason and could certainly use some help on the right-side. Minnesota is off to a rough start and they may finally realize that it is time to begin selling to kickstart a rebuilding phase. There should be some solid wingers on the trade market this season who could certainly help out the Sabres offense.
With that being said, let’s break down four of the wingers who I believe the Sabres could realistically acquire for good value:
Jason Zucker, LW, Minnesota
Jason Zucker’s name was tossed around a lot in trade rumors this past offseason and he was included in a trade offer for Phil Kessel that would eventually fall apart. Some more fuel has been added to the fire after Zucker called out his team and his coach following a 4-0 loss to Montreal on Thursday. With an aging core and a rough 1-6-0 start to the season, it may be time for the Wild to start considering a complete rebuild.
I am a huge fan of Zucker’s game and I think he could provide a great offensive boost to any line he is placed on. His 58.5 xGF% is the best among any NHL player over the past three seasons. He is just two years removed from a 31-goal season and has recorded over 20 goals in 4 of his past 5 seasons.
The most notable part of Zucker’s game is certainly his fantastic speed and agility. He is very adept at sneaking past defenders to make his way into scoring areas. Put him on a line with a solid set-up man and Zucker can easily net 25 goals per season. He is no slouch on the defensive side either, typically having a positive impact on that side of the puck as well.
He turns 28 in January and is signed at $5.5M per season through 2022-23, so there is some risk involved. One should always be wary of aging wingers with larger cap hits. With his cap hit, the Sabres would have to send some salary back to Minnesota if a trade were to take place.
Trade Value: 2nd round pick, prospect, and roster player
Ondrej Kase, RW, Anaheim
Out of all the players on this list, Kase is probably the least likely to be available. However, there were rumors that he was about to be dealt to Carolina in a trade for Justin Faulk, until Faulk shot it down with his partial NTC. I believe Justin Faulk is a more valuable defenseman than Rasmus Ristolainen, but could the difference be made up by adding a prospect (maybe Marcus Davidsson) on Buffalo’s end? I certainly hope so.
Kase is still a relatively unknown NHLer, but he has been really good for the Ducks. He had 20 goals and 38 points over 66 GP in 2017-18 and followed that up with 11 goals and 20 points over 30 GP in 2018-19 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Kase was on a 30-goal pace last season. He also put up a 55.7 xGF% which was significantly better than any of his teammates last season.
Whenever Kase in on the ice, he generates goals and he generates offense. He plays with a great amount of energy and is willing to go into the corners to win every puck battle. As cliche as it sounds, he truly has a motor that never stops. He uses this speed to his advantage by always getting the puck into dangerous scoring areas. His 2.23 P/60 is 36th among all NHLers over the past two seasons.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that he is elite in transition as well. He was in the 99th percentile among NHLers in possession entries per 60 and possession exits per 60. He converted these exits and entries with an extremely high success rate too.
Ondrej Kase makes any line he plays on instantly better as he is just a pure generator of offense. It does not matter if you throw him on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd line, he will find a way to help put the puck in the back of the net. He is set to make a very team-friendly $2.6M over the next two seasons, so he would be very easy to fit under the cap.
Trade Value: Rasmus Ristolainen, a solid prospect, and a mid-round pick
Jack Roslovic, RW, Winnipeg
Remember this guy? He was the player the Jets drafted in 2015 with the draft pick the Sabres sent their way in the Kane-Myers trade. The very talented 22 year-old has not been given much of an opportunity in Winnipeg in his short NHL career, but he has seen his ice time sneak up into the 16-minute range for the past two games. Despite his limited ice time, he has managed to record 4 points in 9 GP this season.
Roslovic has a lot of things that this Sabres forward group needs. He has a lethal combination of speed and skill which allows him to be very efficient when entering and exiting the zone. He also has wizard-like passing ability with great deception which allows him to set up his teammates with dangerous scoring opportunities. Roslovic is a player who is much better than his NHL stats have shown thus far. I truly believe that he is a young player who is bound to have a break-out season, it’s just a matter of time and opportunity.
Put him on the 3rd line to give it some added offensive flair or put him on a line with Skinner-Johansson to create a 2nd line loaded with speed and skill. Roslovic could also give the Sabres 2nd power play unit some additional firepower.
He is in the final year of his ELC with the Jets, so he will likely be given a bridge deal or a team-friendly longer term deal this offseason. He would be a valuable asset in the Sabres forward corps for years to come.
Trade Value: part of a package in a larger deal based around Rasmus Ristolainen
Jesse Puljujärvi, RW, Edmonton
Disappointing would certainly be one way to describe the start to Jesse Puljujärvi’s NHL career. The 4th overall pick was coming into the NHL with a lot of hype. Unfortunately, his game has yet to translate to this level and he finished last season with only 9 points in 46 GP. After refusing to sign in Edmonton this past offseason, Puljujärvi departed for Finland and signed a one-year deal with Kärpät.
Sure there may be some risk involved in acquiring Puljujärvi because he has been very bad in the NHL, especially last season. But, his value is at an all-time low and he still has such a high ceiling. I think it would certainly be worth a shot, especially for a team like the Sabres.
The 21 year-old winger has a huge 6’4” frame and is a very strong skater. He is more of a playmaker than a shooter and can sometimes fall victim to poor shot selection. His defensive game has not been great in the NHL, but I think the potential is there for him to significantly improve in that area. My mind always goes back to how dominant he was against his peers at the 2016 World Juniors. When his game is on, he can be unstoppable.
Is Puljujärvi a player whose dominance fades away at the NHL level as his size advantage goes away? Or is he a player who was not given the opportunity to play up to his full potential in Edmonton? With the cost of him being so low, I would be willing to find the answer to that question if I were any NHL team. He may not be able to make a big impact right away like the other players on this list, but the potential is there for him to make a huge impact in the future.
Trade Value: 2nd round pick or a middle six winger