The Columbus Blue Jackets need a center.
That sentence, mostly evergreen for the history of the franchise, is even more glaring this offseason. With Pierre-Luc Dubois now in Winnipeg, the Blue Jackets badly need a player who could play first line center for the team. Jack Roslovic, acquired with Patrik Laine for PLD, played well last season, but is not the long term answer at first line center.
Enter Sam Reinhart.
Reinhart had a monster season for a poor Buffalo team that was without Jack Eichel for much of the year. Reinhart, just 25 years old and a restricted free agent this summer, put up 25 goals and 40 points over 54 games for a depleted Sabres roster that finished 31st in the league. He took advantage of an opportunity at center with Eichel out under coach Don Granato to tie his career high in goals and to shoot a career best 19.2%.
Rumors in Buffalo, however, are that Reinhart does not want to stick around in Buffalo to be part of a rebuild.
“No one wants to go through a rebuild, especially into next year, turning 26 at the start of it or close to the start of it,” said Reinhart, who was the Sabres 2014 second overall pick. “It’s tough not being able to play meaningful games down the stretch... I don’t think anyone wants to go through that.”
“In terms of the future... I’m going to take some time. That stuff’s all going to get figured out when the time comes,” Reinhart said.
So, with Reinhart not wanting to stick around for a rebuild, could Columbus swoop in and snag him as part of their plan to quickly reload to playoff contender status?
Let’s explore a trade.
Reinhart, age 25, is coming off a career season that saw him lead a bad Sabres team in scoring. He would fill a void in the top six center role for a team desperate for anyone to play center.
However, as mentioned, Reinhart is a restricted free agent this summer, and one with arbitration rights. Without a guaranteed extension at the time of the trade, Columbus could be staring down the barrel of only one year of Reinhart before losing him for nothing.
If Columbus could extend him, however, acquiring him makes sense - Reinhart fills a need for the Blue Jackets. But what would it take to get him?
Buffalo, as noted, is entering a rebuild. The Sabres need picks and prospects to reload their roster for the future, and Columbus happens to have several assets the Sabres might find interesting in a trade package.
First, the Blue Jackets have three first round picks. Guaranteed the fifth pick overall in the 2021 Draft, it is hard to see the Blue Jackets parting with their own pick this year - the needs are too many to part with such a valuable asset. However, the Blue Jackets do own the Leafs’ pick, 24th overall. While not a lottery pick, Buffalo could still pick a quality prospect at that spot - former 24th overall picks include Danny Briere, Alex Steen, TJ Oshie, and Kevin Hayes.
Buffalo enters this offseason with no goaltender under contract for the 2021-22 season. Linus Ullmark, 27 years old this summer, posted a 2.63 goals against average and a .0917 save percentage in 20 games last year - numbers that do not set the world on fire. Carter Hutton played 13 games and put up a pedestrian .886 save percentage and 3.47 goals against average. Surely the Sabres could use a goaltender with some fire and passion and a will to win, even behind a suspect defense.
Enter Elvis Merzlikins. Merzlikins did not set the world on fire last year (a 2.77 goals against average and a .916 save percentage), but he is just one year removed from a fve shutout season with a .923 save percentage. Elvis is a big personality in net and someone the Sabres could market and build around as they rework their roster for the future. Elvis has done solid work the last two years behind a substandard Blue Jackets roster, especially in the 2021 season. Plus, his contract for next season is affordable.
Finally, Buffalo would likely ask for a prospect to help replenish their pipeline. Columbus offers two interesting options, one a scoring wing and one a center.
First, Columbus could offer Trey Fix-Wolansky as part of a Reinhart deal. A slight right wing listed at 5’7” and 179 pounds, Fix-Wolansky is coming off a season for the Cleveland Monsters where he notched 4-5-9 in nine games. In the 19-20 season, however, Fix-Wolansky looked very good, posting 26 points with 12 goals in 43 games. Just turned 22, Fix-Wolansky could be a long-term goal scoring option for the Sabres. He certainly fits the mold of the way the NHL is moving - witness Cole Caufield’s success in these playoffs, for example.
Buffalo, however, might counter with another option - Tyler Angle. Angle, a 20 year old center prospect, put up 24 points in 23 games in his first season with the AHL Cleveland Monsters this year. With Reinhart and likely Jack Eichel on the way out, getting a center prospect back for Reinhart could be paramount for the Sabres.
So, with that in mind, the proposal is as follows: Columbus trades Elvis Merzlikins, the 24th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, and Tyler Angle to Buffalo for Sam Reinhart.
In coming to this proposal, I reached out to Sabres writer at Die By the Blade Joe Yerdon to hear what the Sabres would think of such a proposal:
I do think Columbus would be a good fit for Sam, but I think he’d be a fit anywhere as he’s really good. Regardless of which trade (be it Eichel or Reinhart) Buffalo has to get a goalie and I think that’s why Columbus is strongly considered.
I think you’ve hit on two-thirds of what they’d be looking for. Certainly the first-round pick is one and a goalie is the other. Merzlikins makes sense because he’s the better of the two at the moment (between him and Korpisalo). I think giving up Elvis and a first gets it almost to the finish line. Angle makes sense as a prospect because I’m guessing he’s not Columbus’ no. 1 guy (Foudy? Tarasov?) but he’s not totally weak.
As far as a proposed deal it makes a lot of sense. I know there was initial talk that Buffalo may want Jones (or maybe CBJ just wants to unload him) but I don’t see that as a fit because he’s basically slightly better Ristolainen.
What say you, Blue Jackets fans? Would you part with that package for potential top six center solution Sam Reinhart? Sound off in the comments!