By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
For the past few years, the trading deadline has been a time for the Buffalo Sabres to peel off a few veteran players in order to obtain prospects and draft choices for the future.
This weekend’s activity before the deadline – the deal that brought Brandon Montour from Anaheim to Buffalo – represents something of a “Phase 2” in the building process. The Sabres not only picked up a 24-year-old player who can help them down the road (especially if he signs a new contract by 2020), but who makes the Sabres better on defense right now.
“All general managers talk about wanting to improve your team,” Sabres GM Jason Botterill said at a news conference after the deadline. “We’ve talked a lot about training NHL players for draft picks. We never give up high draft picks for rental players. But where we are right now, when the situation came along with Brendon, a player who felt into our mix from an age standpoint … we felt this was something that added value to our team. It hopefully improved our ability to get the puck out of our own zone, get some pucks to the forwards, and create some offense from the back end.”
Let’s not underestimate this step. This sends a rather important signal to the team that the front office is trying to improve on its roster now. While most of the players usually don’t want to be traded, they actually want to see some moves at this time of the year involving someone else to show that the hockey department wants them to succeed. It’s something of a morale booster.
The Sabres’ roster, which was waiting for Monday night’s game in Toronto when the deal was announced, reportedly said it liked adding Montour to the mix.
“I think good to have the players exciting about the people coming into the organization,” Botterill said. “I think it’s something I underestimated this summer when I brought Jeff Skinner to the group. It wasn’t a deal where we talked about futures, or a prospect, or something. It helped our group right now. I know it got our players excited.”
Shortly before the actual deadline, the Sabres reportedly dealt Nathan Beaulieu to the Winnipeg Jets for a sixth-round draft choice. The deal apparently had not been cleared by the NHL office at the time of the news conference, so Botterill couldn’t comment on that potential transaction.
But, assuming that goes through, the defensive group comes out of the deadline with an upgrade. Montour should be a regular starting Tuesday night in Philadelphia, and replaces Beaulieu, who had played in about half of the team’s games and at one point had asked to be traded to a team that would play him. It’s hard to know if Winnipeg is that team – the Jets are really good – but at least he’s on a legitimate Cup contender.
What’s more, the upgrade on the defensive roster is one that will please coach Phil Housley. The Montour deal seems like one where Botterill acquired someone who fits Housley’s preferred style of play.
“You look at it from so many different angles,” he said. “You have our analytic department look at it, the scouting department, and also we bring in our coaches. Phil has a familiarity with this player. When he was at Nashville, they had a good playoff series against Anaheim there.”
There are no guarantees at this time of the year when it comes to the postseason. Entering Monday night’s game, the Sabres are six points behind Carolina and Pittsburgh in the East (with a game in hand), and seven points behind Columbus and Montreal. It’s quite a crowd, and most of the other playoff contenders did something this weekend to improve at least a little.
But those of you who were looking for a signal that a trip to the postseason is a goal this year, this weekend provided one.
“It’s very important for our group,” Botterill said about making the playoffs. “It’s what all our players are striving for. It’s what our players are working for in the offseason. They grind it out. I know sometimes it doesn’t come across in games. … But we’re trying to improve. We understand the importance of getting to the playoffs. This is a great step.”
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)