Four games into the preseason and many prognosticators of the Buffalo Sabres roster have changed their outlook on what the opening night lineup should look like.
It’s no secret that the fringe of the depth chart is relatively crowded, both offensively and on the blue line. Under-performing veterans with term remaining on their current deals, along with up-and-coming young talent have resulted in a logjam in terms of depth.
Due to the contracts currently on the Sabres’ ledger and questions surrounding their NHL-readiness, it was widely speculated that some of the team’s top prospects may need to spend another year in the AHL. Somebody forgot to tell the Sabres’ youngsters to wait their turn. With three preseason contests remaining, players like Alex Nylander, Tage Thompson and Lawrence Pilut will look to continue their strong play and force the issue as certain roster incumbents continue to disappoint.
We’ll start with Nylander, a player who could be considered the most polarizing Sabres prospect in some time. After two less-than-stellar seasons with the Rochester Amerks, some fans began to prematurely utter the “B-word” when referring to the 20-year-old winger.
As the team arrived in Western New York for training camp this summer, media members were quick to take note of Nylander’s muscular physique, a tribute to an offseason well spent, from a training standpoint, but the real proof is in his on-ice performance. Following a compelling performance in the annual Prospects Challenge, he has registered two assists through two preseason games thus far, but his presence on the score sheet doesn’t tell the whole story.
Despite a relatively small sample size, it’s clear that his vision and physical presence have made a quantum leap from last season. Sabres fans have been treated to what appears to be a newly motivated young man, dead-set on showing the world why he was selected eighth-overall in 2016. His instant chemistry with his linemates (which have consisted of both veterans and fellow up-and-comers) is a testament to his natural ability as a playmaker.
As returning veterans like Zemgus Girgensons continue to resemble a human manifestation of everything wrong with the organization over the past decade, Jason Botterill will have a tough time leaving Nylander off of the final roster. Of course there is still some merit to certain fans’ desire to see him “prove it” in the AHL, but if the organization is truly serious about shifting the culture in short order, then a player of his caliber belongs with the big club.
Speaking of big...
As perhaps the only Sabres prospect who has out-performed Nylander thus far from an offensive standpoint, Thompson has certainly made a compelling case as well. Similar to Nylander, he was one of the Sabres’ standouts at the Prospects Challenge, using his incredible range and uncanny mobility, given his size, to produce scoring opportunities almost at will against his young contemporaries.
To the delight of the blue-and-gold faithful, that offensive aptitude has transitioned seamlessly in preseason action. Thompson has consistently stood out, not only for his hulking frame, but for his ability to initiate scoring chances by playing positionally sound hockey. With a goal and two assists through three games, his proclivity for generating shots on net has been a breath of fresh air.
As an added bonus, Thompson has proven himself capable of effectively producing beside pretty much anyone he’s skated with since his arrival. Given Phil Housley’s tendency to shake-up his forward lines, his flexibility in that regard could prove to be an invaluable asset.
When the Sabres initially acquired him from the St. Louis Blues in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, many fans were dejected to see that the deal did not include one of Jordan Kyrou or Robert Thomas. If Thompson can carry his current level of play into the regular season, he’ll justify not only his draft status, but also Botterill’s decision to target him this offseason.
Despite a relatively crowded field at forward, the Sabres won’t have too much difficulty finding a spot for both Nylander and Thompson this year, should they choose to do so. Where the challenge truly lies is on the blue line.
Let’s turn the clocks back one year, when Victor Antipin arrived in Western New York. Fans were elated to see one of the premier defenders from the KHL make the transition to Buffalo. Lauded as a puck-moving, offensive catalyst from the back-end, he seemed like the perfect fit for Housley’s plan of attack.
Obviously, the experiment didn’t work out as Antipin was forced to return to Russia this season. Blame it on Housley’s tendency to scratch him in favor of inferior NHL journeymen, or an illness that reportedly caused him to drop over 10 pounds mid-season, either way, it was a failed venture.
Since the start of preseason action, Swedish free-agent signing, Lawrence Pilut is everything Antipin was supposed to be, and more. While the two puck-moving defenders’ playing styles aren’t exactly identical, Pilut has clearly had a much easier time transitioning to North American ice.
Not only does he look like an NHL defenseman, but an argument can be made that he’s been the Sabres’ top blueliner to this point. He’s been heavily involved in transition, and his steady sense of awareness in the defensive zone has been a revelation, leaving little doubt surrounding his ability to contribute effectively on the Sabres’ third pairing. As a player who very few fans had penciled into the opening night lineup, his performance has caused them to reconsider.
Here’s where things get tricky. At the moment, Buffalo simply has too many defensive contracts on the books. Even if they elect to keep eight defensemen on the roster, they would still need to either send Brendan Guhle down for another year in Rochester, or find a way to send Nathan Beaulieu packing either via trade, or by simply waiving him outright (which would be less ideal since he would inevitably take playing time away from developing prospects, should he go unclaimed).
In year two of the Botterill-Housley era, fans are itching to see signs of progress. If the organization is truly serious about taking the next step and contending for a playoff position this season, then they need to find a way to get their best players on the ice. That’s not to say that a year in Rochester wouldn’t benefit someone like Pilut, but everything we’ve seen to this point indicates that he is NHL-ready.
Like it or not, guys like Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and Nathan Beaulieu are not what the franchise needs right now. The team’s slogan this season is, “Actions Speak”. They certainly do, and that mantra doesn’t just apply to the players. Botterill and Housley’s actions as they assemble the final roster will indeed speak volumes. Stay tuned.