Hockey is finally back! The Buffalo Sabres open training camp today and will hold their first practice tomorrow. They’ve invited 52 players to camp which includes 28 forwards, 18 defensemen, and six goaltenders.
There’s still a lot of questions that will need to be answered throughout camp and the preseason. While it sets up for a lot of uncertainty with the roster, it gives fans something to track over the next month leading up to the opening night.
The first thing to keep an eye on is the battle at the bottom of the roster. Jason Botterill has returned every player from last season except Jason Pominville. With a few additions to the roster and some players ready to graduate from prospects to the NHL, it’ll set up a good competition for the final roster spots.
A few players have already started to make strong impressions during the Prospects Challenge. Rasmus Asplund and Arttu Ruotsalainen were arguably two of the Sabres best forwards throughout the round-robin tournament.
Asplund finished strong last season and could realistically push for a spot in camp this season. It’ll be an uphill battle and with him still being waiver-exempt, the Sabres may decide to start him in the AHL.
Ruotsalainen will be a player to follow throughout camp. The belief is that it’ll either be the NHL or back with Ilves in Liiga if he doesn’t make the team. He may be someone the Sabres give an extended look during the regular season before making a decision. The Finnish forward brings some skill and plenty of speed to the table. We’ll see if they primarily have him play his natural position of center or give him some looks on the wing as well.
Is this the year the C.J. Smith finally cracks the NHL roster full-time? He got a little taste last season after another strong year with the Rochester Amerks in the AHL. Smith is not waiver-exempt this season, therefore he would be subject to waivers if he doesn’t make the roster out of camp. While many players manage to clear waivers, Smith could be one that would draw interest around the league.
Returning veterans such as Vladimir Sobotka, Scott Wilson, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson, and even Tage Thompson will be pushed for their spots by the aforementioned players. A few newly acquired vets like Curtis Lazar and Jean-Sebastian Dea will try work their name into the mix as well.
What happens with the log jam on defense?
There isn’t just an overabundance of players at forward, but the story is the same on defense. The Sabres will have three defensemen start camp on the injured list in Lawrence Pilut, Zach Bogosian, and Matt Hunwick (out for the season). All three will likely not see any time in the preseason. The only one that may have a realistic shot late in camp is Pilut.
They’ll bring 10 defensemen to camp that have a realistic chance at earning a roster spot. A few defenders in Rasmus Dahlin, Rasmus Ristolainen, Colin Miller, Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe, and Marco Scandella are virtual locks to make the opening night roster. You can make an argument against Scandella, but with his $4 million cap hit, it’s likely he’s on the team in some capacity.
That leaves Henri Jokiharju, Will Borgen, Casey Nelson, and John Gilmour fighting it out for the final roster spot on the blue line. Botterill probably doesn’t want Jokiharju staying up as a seventh defenseman, so he’ll likely be sent down if the log jam on the right side doesn’t sort itself out. The same can be said for Borgen.
Thus meaning Gilmour and Nelson may be the last two battling for that seventh defender spot on the roster. It’s a shame that players like Jokiharju and Pilut (when healthy) may be pushed into the minors based on the number crunch. However, that’s the situation that the Sabres find themselves in right now.
Who fills out the top six?
Going into camp, it appears as though there is one spot open in the top six of the lineup for someone to claim. If Sam Reinhart indeed is allowed to drive his line, a spot opens on the right wing with Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.
Jimmy Vesey, Victor Olofsson, Conor Sheary, and Marcus Johansson are a few players that could get an opportunity on that top line throughout the preseason. It’ll also be interesting to see who ends up playing on the second line to help Casey Mittelstadt make that jump in his game.
One of the great mysteries going into this year is finding out how new head coach Ralph Krueger will utilize this roster. We’ll get our first idea on where he views players on the roster on the first day of practice, Friday.
We’ll also get an idea of the type of system he wants to play throughout the next month and his philosophical beliefs when formulating a lineup. For example, does he believe in LW/RW or more of an F1, F2, and F3 structure? Does he want his blue line to be set up left-shot and right-shot on a pair? How will he deploy certain players on the roster, compared to what Phil Housely did over the last two years?
All these questions and more will start to be answered when camp opens up. If nothing else, we’ll have a lot to discuss throughout the preseason. We’ll also finally begin to find out what Botterill’s plan is for clearing out all of the bodies that are currently on the roster.