Looming trade deadline not affecting the Sabres' locker room

The team remains focused on the small picture moving forward

Brayton Wilson
February 20, 2020 - 1:12 pm

The 2020 NHL Trade Deadline is just five days away and the Buffalo Sabres currently sit eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division standings.

After a 7-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, the Sabres currently sit with a 27-25-8 record and 62 points in the standing, which is eight points back of both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers for third place in the division. In the Wild Card picture, Buffalo is 10 points back of the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are all tied with 72 points.

With 22 games remaining in the 2019-20 season, the team is still in a spot to make a lat push for the playoffs, but the chances of coming back to get into the postseason continue to grow more slim by the day. Especially after a disappointing loss like the one on Tuesday can be losses that take a hit to your momentum at this point of the year. Heading into the matchup with the Senators, Buffalo had won their last three games and seemed to be gaining some steam.

But the team feels that a loss like this cannot affect them as they continue to try and get back into the playoff picture.

"I kind of feel like it should be easy to bounce back," said Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen after practice on Thursday. "Everyone is probably angry and pissed about how the game went down. I felt we had a really slow start to today in [practice], but we had a good finish and I feel like we have put that game in the past and we’re looking and getting ready for Pittsburgh."

Although a possible run to the playoffs may be on the mind for some, many are looking ahead to the trade deadline on Monday at 3 p.m. EST.

The Sabres have a number of players, especially the ones on expiring contracts, that could be one the move come Monday as some teams will look to add key depth pieces for deep playoff runs come April. Other bigger trades could come about before the trade deadline, but the chances of seeing bigger hockey trades taking place by Monday are a lot less likelier to happen than during the offseason.

While the deadline is on the horizon, the entire Sabres group is trying to remain focused on the smaller picture.

"That always looms in the air in the National Hockey League," said Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger with Howard Simon and Jeremy White on Thursday on WGR. "Since the beginning of the season, of course we're discussing everything daily and the thought process is very interesting, it's a lot of fun. We are always looking at potential options to make us a stronger team and we feel that in the air.

"But in the coaching room, I have to tell you that we are fighting to still make something special out of this season, we haven't given up on anything that we're doing here, our picture remains small in the coaching room and the players. But with Jason, of course, I drift into the bigger picture on a regular basis and we will continue to try to improve the roster if we can, and to build a group that can get us to where we want to go in the future."

In the Buffalo locker room, the same message has clung on from the coaching staff to the players, as many who are on the bubble to be moved are just proceeding as usual with their daily routine.

"You can’t worry about the outside noise and what people are saying about me or about this team or any other players in here," forward Conor Sheary said following Thursday's practice. "I just worry about doing what I can to help this team win at this point right now."

“I haven’t really thought about it,” forward Johan Larsson echoed. “It is what it is, and I’ve just been focusing on every game here and trying to be better this year than I was last year.”

Both Sheary and Larsson are on the final year of their current contracts and will become unrestricted free agents come July 1. The 27-year-old Sheary currently holds a cap hit of $3 million with his contract, while Larsson's cap hit sits at $1.55 million.

Other players that will be unrestricted free agents during the offseason and could be looked at on the trade market includes forwards Michael Frolik ($4.3 million), Jimmy Vesey ($2.275 million), Zemgus Girgensons ($1.6 million) and Scott Wilson ($1.05 million). Evan Rodrigues ($2 million) will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but he could also be on the move after reportedly requesting for a trade out of Buffalo back in late December.

Sheary is currently in his second season with the Sabres after spending the first three years of his career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In 53 games this season with the Sabres, Sheary has scored nine goals while picking up 10 assists for 19 points. The winger was acquired in the summer of 2018 in a trade with the Penguins, and has put up 53 points (23+30) in 131 games with the Sabres.

Although his trade was during the offseason, Sheary knows what to expect if he does get moved by Monday's deadline.

“It’s obviously a shock when it initially happens,” Sheary said. “It was the first team I had played for, the only team I had played for at the time, so the first trade was a little difficult. You’re leaving friends, you’re leaving a city that you started to know, but I think it was a fresh start at the time and it was a good thing for me to come here. It’s a weird thing to get traded, but it’s part of the business.”

While Sheary has just recently been through a trade, Larsson has not been involved in a trade since being part of the Jason Pominville trade with the Minnesota Wild in 2013. The veteran forward has played all but one of his 384 career NHL games with the Sabres in his eight-years in the league, scoring 38 goals and registering 57 assists for 95 points. This season in Buffalo, Larsson has six goals and 10 assists for 16 points, and is on pace to set a career-high this season of 23 points (9+14) over a 75-game period.

Even though he was just 20-years-old at the time he was traded to Buffalo, Larsson has grown accustomed to the city he calls home, and has also been through plenty of ups-and-downs in his seven years with the Sabres.

"There’s been a lot of changes up and down, for sure,” Larsson said. “You can say that I’ve been through a lot.

"I’ve been here for a long time, and it starts feeling a little bit like home. Starting to know a lot of people around the town and you know where to go. You just feel at home, and I feel like the fans have been good here, the people have been great here. I’ve had a good time here, and I like it."

As for a player like Ristolainen, he's been the discussion of being part of a bigger trade for some time now. The 25-year-old blue liner still has two more years remaining on his contract after this season with an average annual value of $5.4 million. If the Sabres and general manager Jason Botterill are looking to deal Ristolainen, it will likely have to be part of one of those bigger "hockey trades" that tend to happen after the season.

In his 484 career games over seven seasons with the Sabres, Ristolainen has scored 41 goals and registered 182 assists for 223 points. However, he has been highly disregarded for his bad defensive play, despite providing some offensive flair to his game.

This season has been a bit of a turnaround to his game under Krueger as he's on pace for 39 points (6+33) over a full-82 game season, but a large part of that has been a decrease in his time on ice.

Although his name has been in the rumor mill for more than a year now, Ristolainen continues to go about his business on and off the ice.

“I don’t think it’s hard at all,” Ristolainen said. “It’s not our jobs to worry about it. Our jobs it to play games and get better every day. I feel like we’ve been doing [that], and we haven’t really thought about anything else besides what happens in that room there.

“My focus is really on the small picture, to try and get better every day and help the team to win and solve this situation here right now on the ice.”

At Thursday's practice, forwards Jack Eichel and Kyle Okposo were given maintenance days, while Michael Frolik continues to recover from an illness that has sidelined him for nearly a week. However, Krueger said afterwards that he is doing better and that he is optimistic that he will be back on the ice with the team on Friday.

Also on Thursday, the Sabres practiced with three goalies on the ice to limit Carter Hutton's workload. Along with Hutton and Jonas Johansson, Sabres emergency goalie Brad Hawayek was working in on Hutton's end, and eventually allowed Hutton to exit the ice early. Krueger says that Hutton is working through a lower-body issue that is not a serious issues, and that the team feels optimistic about his status.

On the injury front, Krueger said that goalie Linus Ullmark is in a good place with his recovery from a lower-body injury. He says that he's optimistic about the way the rehab has been going and that he is on schedule with his timeline back.

The Sabres return to practice on Friday before flying out to Pittsburgh for Saturday's matchup with the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.

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