When discussing the Buffalo Sabres, most expected a better product based on off-season additions preceding the 2017-18 NHL season. Defensemen were signed and traded for by incoming GM Jason Botterill while hiring first year head coach, Phil Housley. Fans were ready to talk playoffs while most sports outlets, including The Hockey News, had the Sabres on the outside.
Well, these outlets were not wrong. As of December 3, Buffalo is officially in last place in the NHL. Who would have thought that after years of bad records, it would get worse, especially after drafting Jack Eichel? Elliot Friedman reported, on the night of December 2, while the Sabres were in Pittsburgh, that the team was willing to listen on all players without the last name of Eichel. The team sucks so Botterill has to do something since it is obvious that there are players in the line-up that are not working and weighing down the salary cap. The player that seems to work best in the fast-paced system Buffalo is employing, Evander Kane, has been at the center of trade rumors. Botterill could snag a solid haul for the Sabres' leading scorer but there is a less common name that teams should be asking about: center, Ryan O'Reilly.
As Eichel was drafted, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the Sabres had traded for O'Reilly and Florida Panthers winger,Jamie McGinn, from the Colorado Avalanche for Mikhail Grigorenko (KHL), Nikita Zadorov, J.T. Compher, and the 31st pick in the 2015 Draft. Soon after, ex-GM Tim Murray extended O'Reilly's contract for seven years, worth $52.5 million. At the time, it appeared that Murray was trying to complement his young core, centered around Eichel and Sam Reinhart, with a more experienced, solid two-way player. For about two full seasons, O'Reilly was a point leader on a poor hockey team, far from the problem but not exactly being an immediate solution. It could be easily said about the 26-year old this season, through 27 games. He has not produced a point since November 20, like many others on the Sabres, which is not so great for someone garnishing the largest paycheck on the team this season.
Despite the failures of the entire Sabres team to produce offensively, as they finally broke the three game, shutout with one goal against the Penguins, Jack Eichel seems to be the player garnering the brunt of the blame for the struggles. The 21-year old has faced adversity as the only other offensive threat not named Evander Kane since the rest of forwards have accomplished next to nothing. Ryan O'Reilly, who has more NHL experience and a letter, has not been much of a threat to the opposition. His wingers, other than the Benoit Pouliot and Kane occasionally, tend to not be much faster than him, which is an issue since he is not exactly a fast skater himself. Thus far, there is plenty more to be desired though O'Reilly is still a good hockey player.
If it is correct that the Sabres are open to trading all but one player, inquiries on O'Reilly should not be ignored. As there was back in 2015, teams will covet a player of his stature: a two-way player than has produced 55-65 points consistently. His overall pace is not totally off that but he has not produced much offense as of late. When his team has been good, he has been a strong puck possession player. Possession ratings are down for O'Reilly but his team is also playing quite poorly, which is often a result. On the right team that has cap room to spare, he could garner a nice return. If traded, where would that leave the Sabres?
By trading Ryan O'Reilly, however, Buffalo would be losing their number-two center. There would be a gap between Eichel and the next guy that would be tough to replace in the short-term. Sam Reinhart was initially thought to be the second-line center of the future but the results for him at that position have not helped. Like O'Reilly, he should have faster wingers around him to make up for the lack of foot speed. It still would not be the worst if Reinhart spent some time down the middle as any chance of a playoff spot has all but faded. But again, there is another big gap at center on the third-line. Would Zemgus Girgensons have to fill the void with his 3 points? Maybe but it would be difficult to expect much production unless he gets back to his form under Ted Nolan.
Looking at the possible return, it would be similar to what the Botterill may want to seek for Evander Kane. There is a complete lack of scoring depth on the team and they may want to take on a good skating, bottom-six forward that has some term and decent cap hit. If Buffalo is looking to unload a player with a $7.5 million hit, they may need to take on a salary. What they should also seek, as the team acquiring O'Reilly would be might be in good playoff standing, is a good prospect that is in development. The bottom-six player should be one that can make a better impact than the current situation in Buffalo while the prospect has strong potential to make an impact in a year or two, whether as a forward or defenseman.
This deal may require some "sweetening." It could take a prospect in the system, maybe Justin Bailey or Nick Baptiste (or another), to make it happen. I would try to stay away from Brendan Guhle, Alex Nylander, or C.J. Smith, if possible. And if they ask for Casey Mittelstadt, hell no. He may be the poor man's Evgeni Malkin for this franchise once he develops. The prospect of the Golden Gopher being behind Jack Eichel in future is whole reason you look to trade O'Reilly in the first place. So, some B prospects as well as a mid-level draft pick may have to go along with him. Retaining of salary could also help swing a deal. Did I mention that O'Reilly is the highest paid Sabre? And no, Eichel is not until his deal kicks in.
The prospect of trading Ryan O'Reilly would be rather difficult but again, he may better suit a team that relies on puck possession over speed. The high cap hit and offensive lull may not be ideal but Jason Botterill will not give him away if the compensation is not satisfactory. The return, stated above, would be my asking price if I was manager and it is obvious that there are others that could offer more (Peter Chiarelli to name the obvious). By stating this possibility is to not indicate that O'Reilly is not valuable as it is the opposite. He can be a strong, system player on a team that is not in running for the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Botterill can use that to his advantage and receive the proper return. It takes two to tango but it could remove some cap space needed to develop the skilled, fast team they so desire.