By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — In a seller’s market, with bubble teams clamoring for any asset that might buoy their playoff chances and contenders searching for that last piece, Sabres veteran Paul Gaustad should be coveted at the upcoming NHL trade deadline.
The versatile American, an unrestricted free agent in July, has been at his best recently, centering a strong shutdown line with Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Kaleta.
Gaustad has three goals, including the winning score Sunday, and seven points in the past 10 contests. At 56.8, he ranks ninth overall in faceoff percentage. He won 16 of 23 draws last game. He also kills penalties and can play center or wing.
With his stock rising, he could bring at least a second-round pick.
But who says the 14th-place Sabres are sellers leading up to Monday’s trade embargo?
Fresh off a 6-2 thumping of Pittsburgh on Sunday, a win tonight against the New York Islanders at the First Niagara Center could bring the Sabres (57 points) to within five of the eighth and final playoff spot with 22 games remaining.
“Right now, I’m not even going to comment,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Monday when asked if he expected any moves. “I look at it like if we can win a game, we can close the gap to five points. You win that game (tonight), I think we can put ourselves in this. …
“I think we can put a run together, and I told the team that before Pittsburgh, that I still believe in you, that when we’ve been healthy and on the same page, we’ve been able to push ahead.”
Whether the Sabres, a sturdy 6-3-2 since they reached full strength Jan. 24 in New Jersey, push ahead with Gaustad will be interesting.
The 30-year-old met with Sabres general manager Darcy Regier on Saturday, a meeting he’s downplaying as being about the team and not his future. Clearly, Gaustad, a homegrown player in his seventh season, doesn’t want to leave.
“I’ve always wanted to be a Sabre. I’ve always wanted to be in Buffalo,” Gaustad said. “I’ve come to grow up here. My adult life has been in Western New York. Winning here is one of my main goals in hockey.”
Gaustad said he discusses “all sorts of different things” with his agent.
“What I’ve told him and what I’ve said from the beginning is I have to focus on playing hockey,” he said. “That’s all I can control. There’s no point in talking or focusing on different things that I can’t control.”
Gaustad said he hasn’t had any in-season extension negotiations. He signed a four-year, $9.2 million deal in 2008.
“We talked a little bit about just where I wanted to be (before the season),” he said.
How does Gaustad balance any thoughts of leaving the only organization he’s known and joining another team?
“I just focus on playing the game and playing with the team I’m on, just like I’ve done years before,” he said. “It’s the same things. Address it the same way. You can get traded in any season.”
One scenario could have the Sabres basically renting Gaustad, who has zero goals in 38 playoff games, to another team and re-signing him in the summer.
“Anything’s possible, I guess,” Gaustad said.
Of course, Gaustad’s hardly alone. Deadline week can be a rough time for many players.
“You really have to avoid all the noise out there,” Ruff said. “In this situation, there’s a lot of it, which is understandable. But if you look at (Sunday’s) game, that’s an indication the players were focused.”
Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said the enhanced media today only makes deadline time tougher.
“It’s changed a lot over the years – the access to blogs, Twitter, television, the tickers on the bottom of the page,” he said. “The whole thing has evolved into a social media circus. You start reading all that stuff and believing it, you never know. It’s absolutely crazy at this time of year. As a player, the best thing you can do for yourself is not read any of that stuff.”
But it’s hard for Gaustad to avoid the talk. He’s spoken about his status the last two days.
His line, which enjoyed a nice run last postseason, keeps drawing the opposition’s best. On Sunday, the trio outplayed and outscored superstar Evgeni Malkin’s line. They should face the Isles’ top combination of P.A. Parenteau, Matt Moulson and John Tavares tonight.
“Yeah, definitely he has played some of his best,” Ruff said about Gaustad. “Even if you want to look at the last two games, that line against the top line from Montreal, that line against the Malkin line not only went head-to-head, but outscored them.
“You couldn’t tell a lot of people that was going to happen. But Paul’s done a good job, scored a great goal. They look a lot like they did in the playoffs.”
Who knows, maybe the line sticks together and helps the Sabres earn that unlikely playoff berth?
Ruff said winger Cody McCormick (upper body) is riding an exercise bike again and center Jochen Hecht (concussion) is progressing and “starting to do a little bit of work.”
Could Hecht, out since Jan. 24, be back on the ice in a couple of weeks?
“I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility he can get back on,” Ruff said. “He’s making progress. These are always kind of gray areas where you don’t know.”
Ruff on the tight standings: “That’s the crazy part about where we’re at. One game you can be in 14th. You can win a game you can be in 10th or 11th. It creates hope. There’s teams – you can look at baseball, you can look at football – teams that get in the playoffs the last day, and that might have to be us.”