Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray probably thought he had it all figured out. He made the trades for young vets with a solid on-ice history who still had up-side. He drafted 2nd-overall twice in a row to add almost instant NHL production. And as he went into last season with some holes to fill, he still had quality players from the old regime whom he at least could use in a transitional role. It would seem, however, that at this point in the 2016 off-season, Murray may need those transitional players once again.
Odd-ice issues aside, most Buffalo Sabres fans were all for the Evander Kane trade. Most had grown weary of the backward steps Tyler Myers had taken since winning the Calder Trophy in 2010 and they'd seen enough inconsistency from Drew Stafford to volunteer to take him and his guitars to the airport. Those were the two known quantities of that trade, both of them part of former GM Darcy Regier's new core.
Add Ryan O'Reilly into the mix to go along with two players from the previous season who lead the team in scoring--Tyler Ennis and Matt Moulson. Heading into last season the Sabres top-six group of forwards looked as if it would supersede anything we'd witnessed in the prior eight years. However, Moulson had a horrendous season and Ennis wound up injured after a poor start. Even with those two combining for only 32 points, rookie's Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart picked up the slack, O'Reilly was approaching career numbers despite being felled by an injury and Kane hit the 20-goal mark for the first time since 2011-12.
Heading into this off season Murray made two moves that would shore up the top-nine for the club when he traded one of four 2016 third-round picks he had for the rights to left wing Jimmy Vesey. The Harvard Crimson forward had made substantial progress since his first two seasons at Harvard and he is now being looked at as a top-six left-winger.
The other move Murray made was to land right wing Kyle Okposo via free agency. The powerforward had put together three pretty good seasons with the NY Islanders and unlike Moulson who spent five years on Long Island, Okposo made an impact on a line that wasn't centered by John Tavares. It was a major signing for Buffalo as Okposo was considered the best free agent available after Steven Stamkos wound up staying in Tampa Bay.
Murray's best laid, top-nine plans could have looked something like this:
Evander Kane/ Ryan O'Reilly/Kyle Okposo
Jimmy Vesey/Jack Eichel/Sam Reinhart
Matt Moulson/Zemgus Girgensons/Tyler Ennis
However, nothing's ever easy, especially in Buffalo, as Kane's well documented off-ice antics have many questioning whether he'll remain in Buffalo (and if he does how effective he'll be) and it looks as if Vesey could be signing somewhere else when he hits his free agency August 15th. There could possibly be two top-six holes for Murray to fill come October 13th when the Sabres host the Montreal Canadiens to kick off the 2016-17 season.
Fortunately, Regier and his former head scout Kevin Devine left Murray with some options.
Ennis was drafted 26th overall in the 2008 NHL Draft with the pick Regier received in the Brian Campbell trade to San Jose. Throughout his short career Ennis has either hit the 20-goal mark in four of his six full seasons. Although drafted as a center he's been able to adapt to either wing and even though it looked as if Ennis had trouble adapting to new head coach Dan Bylsma's system, he has enough hockey smarts to overcome whatever hurdles he may have faced last season.
Girgensons was another player who looked as if he had trouble with Bylsma's system. Although he scored 15 goals in 61 games the prior year he only scored seven last season. Both Bylsma and Murray had a hard time finding a home for him last year. At this point in his young career a third-line center role might be perfect for him, but they may also need him to try and gain some chemistry with Eichel and Reinhart on the second line out of necessity. Unless Moulson-a three-time 30-goal scorer regains his touch.
2013 second-round draft pick Justin Bailey may get called into duty should Kane and/or Vesey end up somewhere else. Bailey had a breakout second half of the season in Rochester last year and did everything but score in a short eight-game stint with Buffalo. Bailey would probably be better served spending a good amount of time in Rochester next year, but if he's pressed into NHL duty, he should eventually make some waves.
Marcus Foligno, a fourth-round pick in 2009, is a bottom-six winger who showed he could produce in a third-line role, at least with his linemates from late last year and Johan Larsson, who centered that line, can also play on the third line. He came from Minnesota in the Jason Pominville trade.
Despite many calls for the departures of Regier-guys like Girgensons, Foligno and even Ennis at times, they may play key roles for the team this year as they try to break a five-season playoff drought. They all have skills yet all have battled with inconsistencies which, at times, has put them in a bad light.
Yes, the best laid plans often go askew, but it's good to have some cards to play when they do.