Forty-seven games into the 2017-18 NHL season, Buffalo Sabres newcomer Victor Antipin has been absent for nearly half of the season.
The 25-year-old defenseman signed with Buffalo back in May and was pretty highly-touted upon his signing. It was an exciting move, and Sabres GM Jason Botterill called Antipin “a well-rounded defenseman,” noting his mobility and puck-moving skills as two key assets of his on-ice play.
He signed with Buffalo after an impressive showing at the World Championships, inking a one-year entry-level contract. The length of the contract was limited due to his age, per the league’s collective bargaining agreement. He was expected to compete for a top-four spot on the Buffalo blueline.
But what should have been an exciting addition to the Sabres lineup has turned into a frustrating situation. For much of the first few months of the season, Antipin was often a healthy scratch, pushed to the press box in lieu of guys like Josh Gorges and Justin Falk.
After playing the first three games of the season, during which he averaged 15:07 minutes of ice time and was paired with Jake McCabe, Antipin was scratched for four straight games.
In his absence, Matt Tennyson found his way into the lineup.
Antipin returned 11 days later and seemed to have found his place in the lineup, appearing in nine straight games. Antipin even played a season-high 19:28 in a loss to the Stars on November 4.
That course of nine games saw the Russian paired with several different Sabres defenders: McCabe, but also call-ups Tennyson and Zach Redmond; Falk, Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu. The Sabres tried to shake things up on D, and thus, Antipin played as part of all these different pairings.
Just when it seemed like he’d found his way into the lineup for good, the Sabres scratched Antipin for two straight games between November 10 and 17. Taylor Fedun was part of the lineup those games, replacing Antipin.
But then he returned to the lineup again, and this time played eight straight games between November 17 and December 1. He was paired with Gorges for the first four games - all losses, then switched back to a pairing with McCabe for the last five games, one of which was a Buffalo victory.
December was spotty for Antipin. He played in the team’s first game of the month but was scratched for the next. He skated alongside Gorges for a pair of games on December 5 and 8, then missed three straight.
He made his return to the lineup for two more games on December 15 and 19 and hasn’t played since. After being scratched for three games, it was announced on December 29 that Antipin was ill. The flu, which reportedly made him lose 10 pounds while being unable to eat for two days, has kept him out ever since.
The Sabres activated Antipin from IR on January 18, and he began skating with the team to get back into game shape, but he has yet to return to game action - a feat he may just do on January 23 when the Sabres visit the Oilers.
Buffalo announced Tuesday morning the recall of Tennyson from the AHL’s Rochester Americans. Per John Vogl of The Buffalo News, Beaulieu is injured and Gorges is ill, which could mean Antipin returns to the lineup.
To this point, Antipin has put up four assists and is a minus-3 in the 24 games he has played. It’s been a spotty season for the defenseman, and obviously a tough one for the team as a whole.
But the Sabres’ use of Antipin certainly has a big old question mark over it - as in, what exactly is this team doing? Now that he seems poised to return from illness, it’ll be interesting to keep watch on how Phil Housley & co. use Antipin, or if they choose to continue cycling him through the press box.
He may be a third-pair type of guy, and that’s ok - but does that mean guys like Gorges, Tennyson and Falk should be playing ahead of him?
At this point, Antipin is here through the end of the season, unless the Sabres decide to trade him. Going back to the KHL for the rest of the season isn’t a viable option, as the season there is nearly over.
So what do the Sabres do for the next few months regarding Antipin? Will they actually let him play on a consistent basis, or will he find himself back in the press box once more?
At this point, Buffalo’s playoff chances are basically gone. Do you try to trade Antipin and give him the opportunity to play for another team for a few months? Do you give him the chance to play here in Buffalo, in hopes of trying to un-sour this relationship? (Probably the best route to take, if the Sabres have any interest in trying to re-sign him). Or... do you keep sitting him in the press box, even when he’s healthy once more?