And here we go.
All of the months of waiting and speculation will come to an end in a mere 10 days as the NHL roster freeze was lifted at midnight and NHL clubs are free to swap players as they so choose, until 3 p.m. on March 5.
At the center of the trade deadline circus is the Buffalo Sabres.
By now, Sabres fans are tired of hearing about Ryan Miller's and Matt Moulson's assumed departures and want a resolution, one way or another, for them and the other major to-be unrestricted free agent, Steve Ott.
There is a bit of fine print to potential resolutions for these three players though.
Most importantly, the likelihood of a huge, team-shaping blockbuster deal including top roster players, prospects and draft picks is unlikely at the trade deadline. Trades like that are typically reserved for the draft in June. Instead, all three of the Sabres' pending UFAs will likely be moved for top prospects and/or draft picks only.
What that means is that the deadline will essentially be used to set the table for June's draft and will not, in and of itself, be the springboard to the future for the Sabres.
Now the notion of a huge blockbuster occurring is not just the product of the rumor mongers, as there is a realistic possibility of it happening. However, one should refer to trade deadlines of past years to see that the big name rarely gets moved then.
The Rick Nash, Cory Schneider and Jordan Staal trades are all excellent examples of that. Nash and Staal were the biggest potential trade deadline pieces two years ago and didn't move until the draft. Last year, it seemed all but a certainty Roberto Luongo was going to be moved at the deadline and not only did that not happen, but Cory Schneider was moved at the draft instead.
Granted, all of those players were not going to be UFAs the following July, but a team isn't going to give up the packages they gave up for those players for a to-be UFA either.
Simply put, the Sabres will get a haul for these three guys if they are moved, but it will be in futures, futures that will, mostly, be cashed in at this and next year's draft.
This years draft, only considering the Sabres' current situation, offers the potential for some immediate improvement.
As it stands today, Sports Club Stats gives the Sabres a 94-percent chance to end the season in 30th place, assuring them a top-two pick in the draft. That pick will likely be one of two players: Aaron Ekblad or Sam Reinhart.
Ekblad, as previously discussed, is widely seen as the best player in the draft. Scouts and draft gurus don't throw around Shea Weber comparisons lightly, but that's who Ekblad is being compared to right now. He's big at 6'4" and can skate and move the puck as well as anyone in the draft.
Defense is probably on the bottom of the need list for the Sabres with Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mark Pysyk, Brayden McNabb, Chad Ruhwedel and Jake McCabe in the pipeline—never mind Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff playing well now. Yet the allure of Ekblad may be too much to pass on, and understandably so, if the Sabres get the top pick.
If the Sabres deem their blueline set, or if they end up in the number two slot, Sam Reinhart seems to be the guy they'll choose. Beyond being the consensus top pick in NHL.com's latest mock drafts, Reinhart has shown a ridiculous amount of offensive spark since returning from the World Junior Championships in January, posting 40 points in those 17 games.
People have been slow to put a player comparison to Reinhart, but Bob McKenzie has him ranked second in his draft prospect rankings and Craig Button says his hockey IQ is well above average.
With Ekblad or Reinhart in the fold, the Sabres will likely look toward the second round and the three picks they hold there. Yes, the Sabres potentially have the New York Islanders' first rounder, but the likelihood of that happening took a substantial downturn with John Tavares' season-ending knee injury.
The Isles are currently in 26th, which translates into the fifth pick in the draft, and are eight points behind the Nashville Predators for 25th. The Predators are only four points out of the last wild card spot in the Western Conference, so they're not laying down anytime soon, and without Tavares the Isles are not likely to win many more games. It seems very unlikely that a team would pass up a top-five pick even with the 2015 draft class.
That leaves the Sabres with their three second-round selections, not including any first rounders acquired at the deadline. Tim Murray has not been shy in saying he will be ready to turn a few of those second rounders into firsts if the market allows at the draft, but that is also not a given.
Regardless, Murray will have four picks to work with in the top-60 as of right now, and will surely get more at the deadline.
Armed with a growing bushel full of draft picks and Hockey's Future's second-ranked prospect pool, Murray has the assets to work with. Whether he uses his picks as is, or trades picks for picks, or picks and prospects for players, he has a ton of options now and at the draft.
Yet, do not be surprised to see a decided lack of roster players coming back in return for the Sabres' outgoing stars. Instead, Murray will accumulate more to work with in June, not only for the draft, but for when the market is more suitable for the team-changing moves we've seen in the past few years.
The next ten days are extremely important for the future of the Sabres, but the major impact will likely not come on March 6. Instead it will be felt in the weeks leading up to June 27 in Philadelphia for the NHL draft.
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