BUFFALO, NY — The Buffalo Sabers’ roster crunch creates a difficult situation for general manager Kevyn Adams as the trade deadline approaches.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has emerged as the team’s best goalkeeper, giving the Sabers three goalkeepers since Eric Comrie’s return from injury. But with Luukkonen still exempt from waivers while Comrie and Craig Anderson are not, Buffalo have made paper transactions to loan Luukkonen to Rochester on days when he’s not playing. When Luukkonen plays, the Sabers have other players exempt from waivers down in a similar paper move. Last week that was Jack Quinn. At the weekend it was Peyton’s cancer.
But Adams has also been working on another solution. Veteran forward Vinnie Hinostroza, newly signed this offseason for a salary of $1.7 million, has not been in the lineup in 19 of the last 21 games. He bounced back last week while the Sabers gave Quinn and JJ Peterka a couple of nights off, but Hinostroza was back to a healthy scratch on Monday as the Sabers lost to the Panthers. The 28-year-old Hinostroza has eight assists in 19 games this season and has been passed by Buffalo’s younger forwards on the depth chart.
Adams has spoken to every team in the NHL to find a better situation for Hinostroza. As Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada first reported, the Sabers want Hinostroza to be able to get back on the ice. He doesn’t have a clear road to playtime with the Sabers. So if Adams finds a deal that makes sense for the team, it could open up a roster spot. Hinostroza’s $1.7 million salary may be prohibitive for top-flight competitors, but he’s shown in limited action this season that he’s a solid deep striker, bringing energy to the bottom six of a lineup can. Granato has known Hinostroza since he was in Chicago fighting his way into the NHL roster. In his time with the Sabers, Hinostroza has become a favorite in the locker room and he’s continued to bring energy to training and has been a good teammate off the lineup.
“I know he’s not happy competing,” Granato said last week. “He’s not content with not being in the line-up. It’s a challenge to be ready. But if you look at the bigger picture of an NHL season, players in this position need to be prepared for their opportunity because the opportunity will come. We just can’t tell you exactly which game, which night. But we know it’s coming in an 82-game season. Until then, it’s a tough situation I think, especially for him or a player in that situation.”
If Hinostroza were to leave, the Sabers have options at Rochester if they need to call up another forward in the event of injury. Rasmus Asplund has also been in the Sabers’ line-up this season and is waiting for an opportunity for more regular minutes. Last week, the Sabers ditched defenseman Casey Fitzgerald, losing him to the Florida Panthers. It makes sense to try to move an older player rather than risk losing another younger one like Fitzgerald.
The Sabers are also exploring their options with goaltender Erik Portillo. According to multiple sources, Portillo and his camp don’t believe it’s in his best interest to sign with the Sabers once his college season in Michigan is over. The 2019 third-round pick has a chance to test freehand as it’s four years away from its draft year.
Portillo’s decision is not a direct result of Luukkonen’s recent performance, but Luukkonen’s presence in the organization was undoubtedly a factor in Portillo’s decision-making process. The Sabers also drafted northeastern goaltender Devon Levi in the pipeline and Finnish goaltender Topias Leinonen in the second round of the 2022 draft. Portillo struggles with a lot of youth in Buffalo’s organization.
The Sabers still value Portillo as a prospect and have made it clear that they would like to sign him. He’s 12-7 this season with a 2.96 clean sheet average and a .908 save percentage. He plays for a Wolverines team that ranks in the top 10 in the country. But after Portillo made it clear he plans to sign elsewhere, the Sabers are evaluating all of their options in the trade market.
Adams has made it clear that he doesn’t want to make any hasty decisions as of the deadline that could jeopardize the future the Sabers are trying to build. He doesn’t want to rush forward in the rebuild and is keen to give young players every opportunity to develop. But this team is also on the edge of playoff contention and could use more depth to get over the edge. So Adams has to make decisions about what kind of moves would be worth making to achieve that. Having Portillo as a trading chip could be useful in that he could make a decent return and the Sabers won’t sacrifice in the long run by moving him.
(Timothy T Ludwig / USA TODAY Sports)