After the signing of forward Kyle Okposo on Friday, Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray says he loves his top-six forwards. For the most part, the fans of Buffalo also love the top-six forwards for the Sabres.
Just a few weeks ago, Murray said that the team has a spot in the top-six for free agent forward, Jimmy Vesey. However, the signing of Okposo puts that statement in flux.
As it stands right now, the Sabres’ first two lines will most likely consist of the following six players: Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Ennis, Evander Kane and Okposo. On paper, that is quite the lineup to have playing on your top-two lines.
However, the chances of all those forwards playing in the top-six playing all season and producing is unlikely. Especially considering the questions surrounding Kane at the moment, and whether his legal issues could cause him to miss time. Couple that with the fact that Kane has played over 70 games just twice in his seven-year career. The last time Kane played over 70 games in a season was the season before the last lockout in 2011-12. If his legal trouble does not cause him to miss time, injuries could be a problem once again.
The other question mark in the top-six group is Ennis. He has great offensive talent and can be an all-star in this league. However, he is coming off a major concussion. Concussions seem to be the injury that can derail anyones career at any point. One has to give credit to the Sabres for being patient with him last season, but what happens when Ennis takes another big hit? It could be out of the lineup once again, or worse, his career could be done.
Last season, Kane, Ennis, O’Reilly, Eichel, and Reinhart combined to miss 81 games. Injuries are just part of the game, and it happens to the best of players on one’s team. No one ever wants their star players to miss time with injuries, but it would take a miracle for everyone to stay healthy. However, if the Sabres do suffer any injuries to the top-six, who could come in to play support?
As of right now, the first man up would probably be Zemgus Girgensons. The 22-year old Latvian forward regressed to just 7 goals and 18 points in 71 games last season after a 30 point campaign the year before. Those are stats hardly worthy of a 4th liner, let alone a player worth playing on Jack Eichel’s wing.
Could Matt Moulson turn his game around and be a solid replacement? Maybe with the arrival of Okposo it will help, but Moulson is only getting older.
Johan Larsson is doing well in the role he is in as a defensive center, but he is certainly not a top-two center on this team.
Marcus Foligno and Nicolas Deslauriers had chances with our top players last year. While both had their stretches of good hockey, they did little with the opportunity otherwise.
Essentially, this leaves the Sabres with either Girgensons if he turns things around, or 37-year old captain, Brian Gionta. Gionta has finished the past two seasons playing his best hockey, however his slow starts have been a buzz kill for the team.
The Sabres lack one solid replacement for their top-six, let alone having two or three like a lot of great teams in the league. Just look at the Stanley Cup champions this year in the Pittsburgh Penguins: they had at least 10 forwards that they could comfortably put on one of their top-scoring lines and not miss a beat.
This brings us back to Vesey.
The reigning Hobey Baker Trophy winner for the best player in college hockey is a near sure-fire top-six winger coming out of Harvard. The Sabres acquired his rights in a trade with the Nashville Predators on June 20 to hope to take advantage of early negotiations with the 23-year old.
Vesey choosing Buffalo would likely give him assurance that he will get to play with his good friend, and summer league teammate, Jack Eichel. Vesey is a big body that skates well, perfect to complement Eichel and Reinhart in the top-six. Those three players could grow together for many years with the potential to be the best line in the NHL some day.
Vesey’s presence would likely bump someone out of the top-six when completely healthy, which is not a bad thing at all. Even when thinking strategically, what is so bad with a guy like Kane on line three? He is physical and defensive if it is a shut down line, and he can have all the shots he wants without fans yelling at their television screens. Then when someone gets hurt or is struggling in the top-six, the Sabres have got a proven 20-goal scorer, and one of your fastest and hard-working players that can step in without missing a beat.
The trade for Vesey was a great move by Murray, no matter how many people say otherwise. It’s a low risk, high reward trade. The chances of a third-round pick developing into an NHL players are not that great. Of the last 10 Sabres third-round picks, only Dan Catenacci, Corey Tropp, and Marc-Andre Gragnani have suited up for the team at least once. Instead of hoping and praying that the third-round pick the Sabres traded away miraculously turns into a fourth line grinder that scores six career goals in 148 career games, Murray traded it for a guy who can probably score six goals in a given month.
Murray and the Sabres plan to talk to Vesey next week to sell him on the idea of Buffalo and the Sabres. The goal for that meeting should be to come out with another meeting down the road or a contract. The way Vesey and his agent Peter Fish have been talking, a contract with the Sabres before August 15 might seem unlikely at this point.
“His plan all along was to see it through,” Fish said. “And everything that he’s been through with the whole thing in Nashville would be kind of silly not to try to play it out as best as possible.”
“I think we’ll continue talking to the Sabres before August 15, there’s no question about that,” Fish said. “But as of now, the plan is to stay the course.”
“In our opinion, the only thing that has happened is now the Sabres have stepped into the shoes of Nashville for exclusive rights until Aug. 15,” said Fish’s partner Peter Donatelli. “However, at this time, it doesn’t change Jimmy Vesey’s intention to become a free agent on August 15.”
“I’m still going to go to free agency,’’ Vesey said, “and explore all my options.’’
“I have a couple of teams in mind, but my dad said he is going to let me make the decision,’’ said Vesey.
Vesey’s camp could write a book with the amount of quotes that have come out about his plans going forward. However it is tough to tell right now if we should be taking those comments with a grain of salt.
As some have pointed out, the Sabres may have acted in ways that could be considered tampering while Vesey was still Nashville’s property. If that were the case, it would be wise for both sides to make it look like there has been no deal until long after the trade. For all we know, an agreement could have been made before the trade and the Sabres and Vesey are just putting on a show for the NHL and its owners. If they are doing that than they deserve an Oscar, because they’re doing one hell of a job.
Vesey’s decision is still important regardless of the Okposo signing. While it will not be as tough to swallow if he decides to go elsewhere, he is still needed in Buffalo. His presence subtracts a desire to trade for a guy like Rick Nash or other veterans you have to give up other assets for.
Vesey is still set to become a free agent on August 15. Whether he signs before or after that date, Murray’s top priority should be to make sure the destination is Buffalo, New York.