Sabres among teams focused on trade market over free agency

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Realizing how difficult it is to lure free agents to Buffalo, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill has spent the past two-plus years relying on trades to stock his roster with established talent.

It happened two years ago, when he acquired defenceman Marco Scandella from Minnesota. Botterill did it once again last summer, when Buffalo gave up a prospect and three draft picks to land 40-goal-scorer Jeff Skinner from Carolina.

Though not all the trades have panned out, such as dealing playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly to the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues a year ago, it’s a process Botterill expects to continue this summer in a bid to transform the Sabres into contenders.

“We felt that we were close on some of the discussions,” Botterill said after signing four minor-leaguers on the first day of NHL free agency Monday.

“But as much as we want players to be part of it, and help us with our immediate needs, there has to be a balance, and there has to be a situation where we’re not making signings that are going to be detrimental to us in the future.”

In other words, the Sabres weren’t in a position to overpay for players in free agency, which is why Botterill is placing his focus on the trade market. With the salary cap set at a lower-than-expected $81.5 million, he anticipates some teams pressed for payroll space to be forced to shed talent through trades.

“In a cap world, there’s only so much you can give to players,” Botterill said.

“I never would’ve guessed that we would’ve picked up a player like Jeff Skinner in the middle of summer last year,” he added. “But I think it’s important that we have dialogues throughout the league to see whenever that might materialize, whether it’s later on this week, a couple of weeks or the start of September.”

Botterill’s approach has already paid off.

On Friday, Buffalo gave up two draft picks to acquire defenceman Colin Miller from the cap-strapped Vegas Golden Knights. On Monday, the most significant move the Sabres made was landing third-year centre Jimmy Vesey from the New York Rangers, who freed up cap space to sign free agent Artemi Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract.

It’s Botterill’s belief players will find there is more to the perception that Buffalo is just a Rust Belt city stuck in an eight-year stretch without a playoff appearance once they get an opportunity to get a taste of living and playing in the city. That was the case with Skinner, who often noted how he was impressed by the passionate fans. It didn’t hurt that the Sabres re-signed him to an eight-year, $72-million contract last month.

And it’s something the Sabres hope eventually resonates with Miller, who acknowledged having “mixed emotions” over leaving Vegas for Buffalo.

The situation is similar in places such as Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and even Montreal, where the Canadiens have rebuilt their team mostly through trades and the draft. And when the Canadiens lost out on landing free-agent centre Matt Duchene on Monday, they resorted to the rare option of trying to poach Sebastian Aho from Carolina by signing the restricted free agent to an offer sheet.

The move is expected to fail after the Hurricanes on Tuesday announced they intend to match the offer.

Of the past seven offer sheets made since 2007, five have come from Canadian-based teams.

The difficulty some teams have in attracting players is reflected in where the top free agents landed Monday. Panarin headed to the Big Apple, Duchene chose Nashville over Montreal, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky ended up with Florida.

And Canadian-based teams have an even more challenging time attracting talent.

As former Flames president Brian Burke told The Associated Press in April, numerous players — including Canadians — don’t prefer playing north of the border for several reasons. The first is the lack of privacy and amount of pressure placed on them in many Canadian markets. The second is Canada’s taxation rate.

In Buffalo, Botterill also isn’t prepared to make the same mistakes his most recent predecessors did in attempting to make major splashes in free agency.

There are many examples of free-agency busts, and include Matt Moulson playing out the final 2 1/2 years of his five-year, $25 million contract on loan with the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign. Then there was Ville Leino having his six-year, $27 million contract bought out two years after he signed it.

“I think with where we are as a team, we have to be ready on both fronts,” Botterill said of his approach entering free agency this summer. “We’re certainly going to be at least in discussions with some free agents for sure. … But we have to be ready to see if trade possibilities arise.”

NOTES: The Buffalo signed restricted free agent C.J. Smith to a two-year, $1.4 million contract Tuesday. … In free agency Monday, Buffalo signed G Andrew Hammond, D John Gilmour and F Curtis Lazar to one-year, $700,000 contracts, and Jean-Sebastien Dea to a two-year, $1.4 million contract.

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