Six points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and filled with the belief that there’s still time to make a run at snapping a seven-season playoff drought, the Buffalo Sabres have upgraded their defense ahead of Monday’s deadline, acquiring defenseman Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for blueline prospect Brendan Guhle and a conditional first-round pick in this year’s draft.
This is a move made with immediate impact in mind, make no mistake. Montour, 24, is a defender that some considered a future cornerstone of the Anaheim blueline, the kind of piece a franchise that is in need of some retooling should be looking to build around, which should tell you about all you need to know about Montour’s ability. In three short seasons, Montour has shown time and again that he’s an offensively gifted rearguard — he’s produced 16 goals and 63 points in 169 career games, including five goals and 25 points in 62 games this season — but he had also proven himself to be steady at both ends of the ice, not necessarily a top-tier play-driver but a defender who can be relied upon defensively and skate consistent top-four minutes.
That's a great addition for Buffalo, too. Barring a subsequent deal that sends recently rumored trade chip Rasmus Ristolainen packing, the Sabres will now trot out a top-four that includes Ristolainen, Mountour, Jake McCabe and rookie standout Rasmus Dahlin. Already with a defense that was 16th-ranked in the NHL in terms of goals against and had mid-range underlying metrics, Montour is the type of defender who can help turn the tide further in Buffalo’s favor.
In some ways, the trade is a statement-maker for Sabres GM Jason Botterill, who very easily could have stood pat or made only minor moves ahead of the deadline. Instead, he’s brought aboard a legitimate top-four defenseman who isn’t even yet in the prime of his career and has averaged upwards of 20 minutes per night as part of a deep defense corps. And in order to make the move, Botterill did the one thing few would have expected from the Sabres at this point in the organization’s hopeful trajectory: he traded futures.
Guhle, 21, was a second-round pick by the Sabres, 51st overall, at the 2015 draft who has shown some upside though hasn’t yet shone through at the NHL level. His AHL production has been impressive — with five goals and 27 points in 50 games this season, he’s up to 15 goals and 44 points in 112 career games on the farm — and moving him along was part of the required price for present-day production. As was the first-round selection, which could end up being the higher of the two first-round selections not originally belonging to Buffalo.
According to TSN’s Frank Serravalli, Anaheim will have the option of taking San Jose’s first-round pick, originally acquired by the Sabres as part of last season’s Evander Kane trade, or the first-round selection that formerly belonged to the St. Louis Blues, which Buffalo possessed by way of the Ryan O’Reilly deal in the off-season. However, the option is only available should the Blues’ pick fall between the 20th and 31st selection. You can rest assured the Ducks will take whichever is the higher of the two picks should the option present itself.
Undoubtedly, it will strike some as odd that Anaheim is acquiring assets and taking the longview while simultaneously moving a young defender of Montour’s caliber who could have been an important piece to the retooling process. It should be said, though, that if Anaheim is going to make an earnest attempt at rejuvenating a roster on the cusp of foundering, they have to begin somewhere, and the best place for the Ducks to begin moving out pieces, particularly those that would fetch a quality return around which a future can be built, is from a defense corps that has a wealth of talent.
Even after moving out Montour, Anaheim still possesses a quality one-two-three at the top half of their defense in Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson. Reinforcements are on the way, too, in the form of Jacob Larsson and Josh Mahura. Ducks GM Bob Murray hasn’t stripped his blueline bare with this move, and the expectation — or hope — is that AHL all-star Guhle can develop from project prospect to consistent NHL rearguard. There are building blocks here.
Maybe the most notable thing about this deal isn't the pieces involved, though. Rather, it's that if told ahead of the season that these two teams would be involved in deadline dealings, the assumption would have been that the roles would be reversed. But that's not the case, is it? Because in this instance, it's Anaheim buying for the future, while the Sabres are showing some gumption and getting better in the immediate.