BUFFALO - Twenty minutes before they gave their fans a tantalizing glimpse of the future, the Buffalo Sabres took a step to take care of the present. And while first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin was dazzling and delighting Sabres fans for the first time in rookie development camp, Conor Sheary and Matt Hunwick were preparing to go from a two-time Stanley Cup champion to the team that finished 31st overall in the NHL last season.
To give up that kind of talent for a conditional fourth-round pick clearly indicates the Pittsburgh Penguins are clearing the decks for a big acquisition, either during the free agent frenzy or in an off-season trade. The Sabres, meanwhile, get two legitimate NHL players, a commodity that has been in short supply for this organization in the past couple of seasons. And maybe, just maybe, the Sabres have finally found a winger who can mesh with Jack Eichel. After all, Sheary has spent time with Sidney Crosby the past couple of seasons and things have worked out very well.
“Until players get out on the ice, you’re never going to know that for sure,” said Sabres GM Jason Botterill. “We’re always looking to add to our group, especially on the wing, to add more skill. Guys like that are always in flux and always in motion and that’s what we like about our group. We have Sam (Reinhart) on the wing and he can play middle. We obviously have Jack, Ryan (O’Reilly), Casey (Mittelstadt) so we have talented centermen throughout our group. You bring a winger in and if the chemistry doesn’t work, there’s always other opportunities there.”
There’s obviously a history between Botterill and his two newest acquisitions. As the former assistant GM of the Penguins, Botterill was part of the group that brought Sheary in on a tryout with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American League after his collegiate career finished in 2014. Sheary scored 11 points in 15 AHL playoff games that season, earned an NHL contract and found himself as a key contributor to two Stanley Cup-winning teams. For an organization looking for a culture change, it could do a lot worse than bring in a player with a past like that.
“That’s what gets us excited about our situation here,” Botterill said. “He can come in with, whether it’s Jack, Ryan or Casey, can play with one of our offensive centermen and not only finish off chances from them, but also get in on the forecheck and get pucks to our centermen. He knows how to play in pressure situations against top defenders, top players and we’ve talked a lot here about bringing in players with playoff experience.”
In the 33-year-old Hunwick, the Sabres obviously aren’t looking for the same kind of on-ice impact Sheary could potentially have. But just as Dion Phaneuf was mentored by Roman Hamrlik, as Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman has benefitted from playing with Anton Stralman, the Sabres will be counting on Hunwick to lend his veteran poise and experience to help them groom Dahlin.
“We have some great people in our locker room who are good pros,” Botterill said. “Leadership and mentorship these days is never just one player. I’ve said it before, the days of Mark Messier are gone. I think it has to be a group effort.”
Botterill will now turn his attention to July 1. He goes into the process with a ton of cap space to make additions, something that would be supplemented greatly if he were to trade O’Reilly and his $7.5 million cap hit. That one is a complex one, since O’Reilly is owed a $7.5 million signing bonus. It was reported that the Sabres were set to deal O’Reilly to the Montreal Canadiens for a third-round pick, but the Canadiens balked. Botterill scoffed at the notion that he was ever close to dealing O’Reilly.
“You have a ton of rumors out there on Ryan and I think a lot of them are very creative,” Botterill said. “I would just say that from Day 1, we’ve been very happy with Ryan being a part of our group. And we’ve said before that it’s no surprise that teams have been calling on him. He’s got a great reputation. I can understand why people are calling, but the validity of a lot of the rumors are simply untrue.”
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