BUFFALO, NY -- The calendar has flipped over into 2017 and trade rumor season has started with the NHL trade deadline less than two months away.
For the Buffalo Sabres, they're still trying to figure out what type of player they'll be in the trade market. Buyer, seller, or maybe both?
The season certainly has not gone as the Sabres anticipated it would in the first half. The club has needs that they thought were filled or were left unaddressed in the off-season.
The catch-22 Buffalo finds themselves in is which route they want to go to improve their team. The biggest needs appear to be a top-six winger and top-four defensemen. The dilemma is in order to acquire a top-line winger, you'll usually need to part with a top defenseman.
On the flip side, in most cases, you'll need to deal a top-six forward to pick up a top tier defender.
This is when you'd usually look from within your prospect pool to see if you can afford moving current roster players. In regards to the defense, the closest prospect to making an impact on the roster is 2015 second-round pick Brendan Guhle.
Guhle saw some time with the Sabres this season on an emergency recall and proved he can play at the NHL level. The bad news is that won't come until next season, at the soonest. He'll spend the remainder of this season with Prince George of the WHL.
The big names in the system on the blueline, like Will Borgen (2015 fourth round pick) and Casey Fitzgerald (2016 third round pick), are still a few years away from making an NHL impact.
The Sabres have a lot more players that are closer and even currently making an impact within the forward ranks of the prospect pool. Justin Bailey, Nick Baptiste and Will Carrier have all seen time with the big club this season and have shown promising signs.
The eighth-overall pick from the 2016 NHL Draft, Alex Nylander, hasn't seen time in the NHL yet, but is coming off a dominating showing at the World Junior Championships for Team Sweden scoring 12 points in seven games.
Nylander was sent back to Rochester of the AHL, but is likely to see some NHL time in the not so distant future.
Have to Give to Get
Long story short, from an organizational depth standpoint, the Sabres can better afford to trade away a player like Evander Kane than a defender like Jake McCabe. Two of the biggest names right now in the rumor mill are Colorado Avalanche forwards Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. Both players could certainly help in solidifying the Sabres top-six, but the desired return by Colorado becomes the issue.
The Avalanche is rumored to be looking for a young top defenseman as part of the package for either of their own stars. The Sabres are not trading current top defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen or their top prospect in Guhle. That leaves McCabe as the next best option if you want to be in the conversation with the Avalanche.
Buffalo would also likely need to part with another piece like Borgen as part of the package, but you could risk setting an already weak defense group back even further. McCabe has proven he has the ability to play big minutes riding shotgun with Ristolainen, while Borgen is a very promising piece for the future.
Perhaps the best route is to then go after finding that top-four defensemen like Cam Fowler to sure up the cracks in the blueline. The rumored desired return for Fowler? You guessed it, a top-six winger. That particular area is slim pickings for Buffalo. Only two realistic options come to mind in Kane and Tyler Ennis. However, Ennis continues to have injury issues and has very little value at this time. Kane is still a tough sell for some clubs with his off-ice past, but his recent on-ice performance may have made him more desirable around the League.
If Kane is indeed moved, that leaves a hole on a team that is one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL. As I said before, the Sabres have a better chance to find a top-six replacement within their prospect system, but nothing that is proven. Taking away a player who has proved he can score 20 to 25 goals in a season is usually not a wise strategy for a team who struggles to score like the Sabres have.
This, thus, brings me back to the issue. Which path is the better route to improving?
If it were my choice, I would go after improving the offense. I would push hard for a player like Duchene or Landeskog. If McCabe is the player moved off the roster for one of those players, it may hurt you this season, but playoffs seem like a long shot, at this point, anyway.
Guhle can plug into the lineup next season and some struggling defensemen, like Cody Franson, Josh Gorges and Dmitry Kulikov on expiring contracts and can be moved -- in the case of Gorges, he has one-year left after this season.
Taylor Fedun has shown the ability to be a serviceable player and can be re-signed in the offseason. Also, Casey Nelson may be ready for another shot at the NHL next year and your defense group is starting to take shape.
Everyone builds their team differently. Some General Managers believe you need to build from the defense out, while others believe in building a strong offensive attack.
The Sabres are by no means unable to improve both their forwards and defense. The issue is the drastic change your roster or prospect pool may suffer bringing both a premier top-six winger and top-four defensemen. They don't come cheap in a trade and you rarely see those players available in free agency.
What do you think the best path of improvement would be? Leave your ideas in the comments below.
Chad DeDominicis is the Buffalo Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.