TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning are aiming for a Stanley Cup while the Buffalo Sabres continue to toil near the bottom of the standings.
In the first game after the NHL trade deadline for both teams on Wednesday, their paths could not be any more polar opposite.
Tampa Bay sits atop the league standings and bolstered its roster at the deadline, acquiring defenseman Ryan McDonagh and forward J.T. Miller from the New York Rangers in exchange for forward Vladislav Namestnikov, two prospects, a first-round pick and a conditional second-round pick. The two additions to the Lightning roster bolster an already strong roster as Tampa Bay looks for its first Stanley Cup title since 2004.
While McDonagh is currently sidelined with an undisclosed upper-body injury and is expected to be out at least another week, Miller is expected to be available to make his Tampa Bay debut.
“I think we are a better team today than we were prior to making the move,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “We’ve improved in some areas. J.T. Miller is a different player from Vladdy Namestnikov. We bring in Ryan McDonagh and it’s hard to say our defense isn’t better.
“Does that guarantee we are winning the Cup? No, it doesn’t but I think it gives us a better chance to be competitive in the playoffs.”
McDonagh comes in to play top-four minutes in all situations while Miller is versatile enough to play any role in Tampa Bay’s top nine forward group, he will help the Lightning in the faceoff circle having won 53-percent of his draws this season.
“Those guys are going to bring a lot to the team,” said Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, a former Ranger who was paired with McDonagh the past few seasons. “They’re really, really good players, and I think it’s going to help us in the long run here.”
The Lightning on Tuesday recalled forward Michael Bournival from Syracuse of the American Hockey League after league-leading scorer Nikita Kucherov left Monday’s game in the first period and did not return. In addition, center Tyler Johnson had to be helped back to the locker room late in the third period, although he did return for overtime during a shootout victory against Toronto.
The Sabres, meanwhile, have not shown any progress under first-year head coach Phil Housley, sitting in 28th in the overall league standings and once again finding themselves sellers at the trade deadline, having moved out leading goal scorer Evander Kane to San Jose on Monday. It’s been another season of frustration, even for first-year general manager Jason Botterill.
“The group that we have right now is not working,” he told The Buffalo Sabres. “It’s a difficult situation. We all know exactly where we are. You look at the standings, and we know where we are, and there needs to be a lot of improvement in this organization across the board.”
Despite the disappointing situation, the Sabres know they need to make a statement in the final month-plus of the season.
“We need to get better,” goaltender Robin Lehner also told The Buffalo News. “Every game is very important to us. It might not be to other people but to us in this room it’s important. It’s a part of showing you want to be here and that’s part of the process right now.”