Tim Murray made his first move as Buffalo Sabres’ general manager, dealing Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for goalie Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart, prospect forward William Carrier, a 2015 first-round pick and a conditional pick that will turn into a first-round pick in 2014 if the Blues make the Western Conference Finals or if Miller re-signs.
As goes for almost every move, the answer to “who won the trade?” is: “Only time will tell.” In the case of Buffalo and St. Louis’ exchange, that answer is quite literal. If the Blues end up in the Western Conference Finals or re-sign Miller, this trade goes from decent return to huge haul for the Sabres.
Murray has no control over that aspect of the trade. But he does have control over other wait-and-see part of the deal: The two players Buffalo received in Halak and Stewart. Since the move was made several days before the deadline, Murray has time to flip both into more draft picks or prospects. If he can flip both, the first-time GM can grab the confidence of Buffalo’s brow-beaten base.
Halak is now the best goaltender on the market, with only Carolina’s Cam Ward in contention for that honor. But Ward is returning from another injury-marred season and may not be viewed as the goalie he was years ago. It will be Murray’s job to convince one of a handful of teams that the former Montreal goalie is an upgrade over their current goaltending situations.
Two factors have led to diminished confidence in Halak in St. Louis and from potential suitors: First, his numbers are seemingly mediocre in comparison to the talent of the Blues. In 16 starts in 2013, he had a .899 save percentage and only went 6-5-1 on one of the most impressive defensive teams in the NHL. It is highly questionable whether a team’s defense affects save percentage, but in terms of reputation – it does. This season, a solid .917 save percentage clearly did not convince St. Louis he was the man for the job, so it may be an uphill climb for Murray to sell other clubs on that notion.
Also the fact that he could never take the reins from run-of-the-mill goalie Brian Elliott, who struggled at times during the playoffs last season when the favorite Blues were eliminated by the L.A. Kings. Elliott is an average .910 career save percentage goalie and has a poor .898 playoff save percentage, yet he has kept Halak in a part-time role. Right or wrong, that puts serious doubt in the minds of GMs about whether he would be an upgrade over Braden Holby, for example.
Murray has a short period of time to do repairs to Halak’s reputation and attempt to convince teams like Minnesota or Washington that he is worth paying for. How should he argue the point? The Slovak goaltender has a strong .925 Even Strength save percentage over the past three seasons. The Sabres’ GM should point out that Miller’s EV save percentage in that same time period is only .925. He should sell hard that Halak’s poor 2013 was an extremely small sample. After all, imagine if you only judged Henrik Lundqvist on his first 16 games in 2013-14? The bigger sample tells a much more favorable story.
Who should Buffalo target? The aforementioned Wild and Capitals have shaky goaltending situations, with the status of Josh Harding in question in Minnesota and no clear No. 1 netminder in Washington. Neither situation seems all that promising with Halak seen as a part-timer himself. Murray may have to shift his focus to backup situations.
Would the Philadelphia Flyers sacrifice a mid-round draft pick to upgrade over Ray Emery, whose save percentage is .898 this season? Could the Chicago Blackawks want a just-in-case option seeing as Antti Raanta has been a mere .904 save percentage netminder as the backup to Corey Crawford? It might be worth a pick for either – but with a low, low rate of goalies getting injured, the Flyers and Blackhawks may not be interested in sending any type of pick for Halak.
Clearly Murray has his work cut out trying to sell his UFA netminder. It should be less difficult to sell forward Chris Stewart, who fell out of favor in St. Louis despite scoring 63 goals in 211 games with the Blues.
Stewart will not be as easy to move as other scorers on the market such as Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson or even Mike Cammellari. He has serious issues with his game, including being a poor puck possession player and a penalty taking machine.
While receiving a high number of offensive zone starts over the past three seasons (58.1%, 54.6% and 60.5%), the former Avalanche first-round pick has posted very poor shot differentials. His Relative Corsi numbers have been brutal.
There are plenty of players that finish around the net, struggle with possession and are still effective in their role. But Stewart’s tendency to take penalties adds an extra eyebrow raise to whether his goal production is worth the hassle. Since ’11-’12, he is a whopping minus-30 in penalties taken vs. penalties drawn.
Still, being a UFA in 2015, a team in the mix does not need to marry Stewart, just grab a few goals and throw him right back into the open market. The potential team list is in the teens with an incredible amount of clubs in the hunt for the final spot. In the East, Washington, Columbus, New Jersey and Ottawa are all within five points of the Detroit Red Wings. Out West, Vancouver and Winnipeg are tied with Dallas in points and Phoenix is one point off.
That is not to even mention the contenders who could use another scorer. The Kings have been pathetic on the power play, ranking 29th in the NHL. The Rangers and Canadiens are tied with the second lowest goal total (to L.A.) of any team holding a playoff spot right now with 159.
There will be a market. But what can Murray get for him? While every year is different, a look at some of last season’s deadline moves may offer a hint. Current Blues forward Derek Roy was moved for a second round pick and a mid-level prospect. He had similar issues with being one-dimensional and taking bad penalties. Ryane Clowe – who had zero goals at the time – brought back a pair of second round picks.
But the Sabres are full of picks. What they want is NHL-ready prospects who can be set for full-time NHL work by 2016. Murray may have to settle for a second-tier prospect for Stewart – that is unless all the scorers are off the board and someone gets desperate.
Once Halak and Stewart are moved – and it seems nearly a lock at least Stewart will be – then the final grade can come in for Ryan Miller and Steve Ott.
If the final draw is Miller and Ott for two first-round picks, two mid-level prospects and a mid-round pick, Buffalo fans should be happy with the first impression of their new GM.
Matthew Coller is Managing Editor of Hockey Prospectus. He is the long-time host of Hockey Prospectus Radio, producer of the Howard Simon Show on Buffalo’s WGR550 and their Rochester Amerks reporter, and a multi-sport play-by-play announcer.
Follow Matthew on Twitter at @matthewWGR.