There was big news coming out of the Buffalo Sabres practice yesterday - top center Ryan O'Reilly returned to the ice, and is expected to play sometime this week, either Wednesday against Montreal or in the team's back-to-back games this weekend. It's a welcome sight for Sabres fans and for the organization, all of whom greatly miss O'Reilly's presence in the top six.
ROR's return wasn't the only big news to come out of yesterday's practice. With the return of O'Reilly, another line shuffling was in order from Sabres coach Dan Bylsma, who has been unusually patient with his latest combinations. O'Reilly was paired with Evander Kane and Nic Deslauriers, while Bylsma chose to keep Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel together, adding Zemgus Girgensons to the Young Guns line.
The thing that makes this line juggling different from the other of dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) we've seen this season is what Bylsma had to say about why these particular combinations are together. He appeared on WGR550 this morning and had this to say:
Bylsma: "We're taking a long term approach of where you might see our lines in the future"— WGR 550 (@WGR550) March 15, 2016
Finally. It's what Sabres fans have been waiting for - a glimpse at the lines of the future, what things might look like next year, when this team is (hopefully) battling for playoff position - and it's a chance for players to finally stay together and build some chemistry. Here's what those lines looked like in practice yesterday.
Two things jump out right away, both dealing with the top two lines. First, Bylsma decided not to reunite Sam Reinhart with O'Reilly, instead keeping Reinhart with Eichel. Adding Girgensons to that line, who showed nice chemistry with Eichel (who doesn't?) earlier in the season could give the Sabres a young, fast, do-everything kind of line that could play together for years to come.
The second thing that jumps out is the gaping hole represented by Deslauriers on the top line. No disrespect to Nic, but that hole needs to be filled by someone who can take advantage of and play off of the chaos and creativity that Kane and O'Reilly bring to the top line. Whether that player Tyler Ennis, or Auston Matthews, or a free agent, or a player to be traded remains to be seen, but it's clear that Tim Murray needs to find someone to play with 9 & 90 this offseason.
The third line remains intact, and assuming that the Sabres can re-sign Foligno and Larsson, who are both RFAs this offseason, this line can play together next season too. Functioning as a defensive line that Bylsma likes to use against the opponent's top line, they've also found some chemistry thanks to their consistency and are starting to click in the offensive zone as well, especially Foligno as of late.
There's been plenty of speculation about why Bylsma has shuffled his lines so much this season, but now that he's putting them together with an eye towards next season, it will be interesting to follow both how long he sticks with that, and how effective each of the lines can be. Give us your thoughts on how these lines look in the comments.