Thanks to a massive number of trades, contract purges, and free agent signings, next year's Buffalo Sabres team will look significantly different from this year's team. Though they won't be much better than last year's team was, they should be more entertaining, and with the newest signing of Andre Benoit, they now have a number of decisions to make as far as who will claim their six starting defensemen positions.
Three starters will need to be replaced from last season, with Christian Ehrhoff, Henrik Tallinder, and Jamie McBain no longer on the roster. In their places came Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, and now Andre Benoit. However, the team also has a number of young studs who will be chomping at the bit in training camp for a shot at the NHL - Mark Pysyk, Rasmus Ristolainen, Chad Ruhwedel, and Nikita Zadorov.
As I see it right now, the Sabres have four players currently etched in stone as starters thanks to their experience, talent, or contract - Tyler Myers, Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, and Mike Weber. That leaves two spots open for the youngsters and Benoit to fill, and when I attempt to get inside Tim Murray's head (not easy, BTW) I have to think that Benoit will get the first crack at an NHL spot.
Benoit has bounced between the AHL, Europe, and the NHL throughout his career, but I think Murray is smart enough to know that if he lets Ristolainen and Pysyk play second-pairing minutes all year, the team will be significantly better for it (note: this is bad). My guess is Murray casually stashes one of the two in the AHL for most of the season and lets Benoit take over that 6/7 defenseman role this year. Murray has stated that Ristolainen could benefit from another half-year in Rochester, and so far he's practiced what he's preached in his interviews, so I think the big Finn spends most of the year dominating the AHL, and lives his life up as the first injury call-up.
As for the other youngsters, there's no reason to keep Zadorov up if he's not going play significant minutes, so we'll send him back to juniors for another year that sees his him playing top minutes in all situations, something he wouldn't do in Buffalo. That leaves Pysyk and Ruhwedel to take the last two open spots - Pysyk proved his readiness last year, and his steady, under-appreciated play won't hinder the tank too much, while Ruhwedel can serve as a reliable 6/7 defenseman, and as the eldest of the youngsters, gets first crack at the NHL.
When it's all said and done, here's my best guess at what the Sabres pairings looks like next season.
Let me know just how wrong I am in the comments, and give us your own pairings for next season.