BUFFALO, NY -- The Buffalo Sabres enter the trade deadline this season in a position they haven't been in the past few years. They're legitimately in the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference.
When they returned from their bye week Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche, despite a 5-2 loss, they remain six points out of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.
Prior to the bye week, things looked a lot more positive, as the Sabres had the deficit down to just one point last Saturday, but had played a few more games than others in the race. Now that those games in hand have been used up by the clubs around them, they know exactly where they stand for the final 21 games of the season.
This weekend may go a long way in determining how far GM Tim Murray will go in moving off players with expiring contracts. The league decided to send the Sabres on a west coast trip right out of the bye with back-to-back games against the Avalanche on Saturday and Arizona Coyotes on Sunday.
I'm here to tell you regardless of tonight's outcome in Glendale, the Sabres need to stay the course and stick to the plan.
Murray needs to look for the best deals he can get on players with expiring deals, such as Cody Franson, Dmitry Kulikov and Brian Gionta. In reality moving, Franson and Kulikov may not do that much damage to a Sabres potential playoff push. Neither seems to be part of the future in Buffalo, especially when it comes to Franson. He was signed as a bridge guy with a two-year contract back late in the summer of 2015. Also, Justin Falk and Taylor Fedun have shown the ability to step in and be a serviceable defenseman.
The defenseman market appears to be set with the Carolina Hurricanes trading Ron Hainsey to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a second-round pick and Danny Kristo. If Kulikov can fetch a second-round pick, that would be hard to pass on and would give the Sabres three second-round picks in this upcoming draft, allowing for some flexibility. Franson, on the other hand, could be a good secondary option for teams and possibly bring in a third or fourth-round pick for the club.
Gionta is a different situation than Kulikov and Franson. Moving him off the roster could hurt the team over the final 21 games of the season not only with his on-ice production, but a young team will be losing their captain.
The 38-year old has expressed his desire to remain in Buffalo and not be dealt at the deadline. That appeared to be the end of it, but when David Pagnotta, the Editor-in-Chief of this very site, joined Bill Schake and I on our podcast "Beyond the Blade" this week, he gave us a different answer than I expected when I asked about Gionta.
The veteran has a list of five teams he'd be willing to accept a trade to and if one of those teams came in with a serious offer he still could be moved. As Dave put it, when I asked if Gionta could still be traded, he said "if the right deal comes along anybody can be moved, especially Brian Gionta."
You can hear the full interview with Dave and TFP Senior Writer Dennis Bernstein
At the end of the day, the Sabres are not a Stanley Cup contending team this season. Would playoff experience be nice for the young nucleus on the roster? Of course. But that should not come at the expense of moving out assets for a courageous run to the final wild-card spot, though. A first round date with the Washington Capitals wouldn't last longer than four or five games.
It's good to see the Sabres have put themselves back into a position that many expected them to be in this season. A club that will battle for a playoff spot, but may just miss out. Or if everything goes their way, just sneak in. If the injury concerns over the first quarter of the season weren't a thing, this conversation could be different.
At this point in time, the smart decision is for the Sabres to stick to the plan and continue to build a perennial Stanley Cup contender.
Chad DeDominicis is the Buffalo Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.