After nearly ten months without Buffalo Sabres hockey, fans rejoiced as the team finally took to the ice this afternoon to kick-off training camp. Earlier in the week, Ralph Kreuger gave the indication that the lines in pairings from practice would closely resemble what his roster would look like to begin the season.
So, let’s dive into how squad lined-up, and some other important points from today’s skate.
Eichel Misses Start of Camp
Prior to practice, it was announced that captain Jack Eichel would miss the first day of camp with an upper-body injury he sustained in training. He is currently considered day-to-day.
Casey Mittelstadt served in his place on the top line where he centered Taylor Hall and Victor Olofsson. Presumably, when Eichel returns, those will be his primary wingers on the de facto first line.
Sabres’ lines:— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) January 1, 2021
Ruotsalainen, Sheahan mix in
Just insert Eichel (day-to-day) for Mittelstadt and there’s the start.
Down the lineup, Kreuger’s forward combinations were a little more interesting. It seems as though he’s keen on front-loading his forward group. Veteran acquisition Eric Staal predictably lined up in the middle the second line. More surprising was the fact that he skated alongside two of the team’s top wingers in Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart.
This decision could indicate that the second-year head coach intends to lean heavily on his top-two scoring lines to start the year. In a shortened season, perhaps that approach could work better than it normally would in a full 82-game slate.
It’s no secret that the Sabres’ bottom-six is a little shaky in general. For that reason, many felt that someone like Reinhart could serve on the third line to help even-out the team’s scoring distribution. Perhaps when Dylan Cozens returns from World Junior play, that will become the case.
New acquisition, Riley Sheahan and European prospect Arttu Ruotsalainen served as rotational extras today. The two of them are likely the top options the team will carry on the “taxi squad” this season at forward. Given Kreuger’s penchant for rotating his depth with a certain degree of regularity, it’s likely that both of them will see significant minutes at some point during the 2021 campaign.
One of the more notable aspects of today’s practice is how the coaching staff selected the team’s defensive pairings. Unsurprisingly, Kreuger rolled out a somewhat familiar combination in Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe up top.
That’s where the predictability ended. The next practice pairing featured Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju. Last season, the two of them did spend a little time together (111 minutes at even-strength), but they were not a regular pairing in Kreuger’s inaugural season. In that short sample, they fared very well, posting an xGF rate of 52.43-percent.
This duo is particularly interesting because it features Miller on his off-hand. Leading up to training camp, Kreuger gave the impression that Brandon Montour would be strongly considered to play the left. Instead, it appears Miller will get the first crack at filling the left-side void on a very RHD-heavy depth chart.
Speaking of Montour, he spent practice with a relatively familiar partner in Rasmus Dahlin. Registering over 265 minutes together in 2019-20, he Montour was Dahlin’s second-most consistent partner. Though they struggled together, posting an xGF rate of just 43.51 at five-on-five last season, the coaching staff apparently feels that they are a good fit.
How TOI distribution, and zone-deployment is spread out among these pairings remains to be seen. It seems pretty likely (based exclusively on history), that the Ristolainen-McCabe duo will be Kreuger’s go-to, followed by Dahin-Montour on the second pair.
Ullmark in Quarantine
One last notable absentee from today’s practice was starting netminder, Linus Ullmark. Per the team’s official twitter page, he is currently quarantining as a result of what they called an “immigration issue”.
Jack Eichel will miss today’s practice due to an upper-body injury sustained in training. He is considered day-to-day.— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) January 1, 2021
Linus Ullmark will miss today’s practice while he is quarantining due to an immigration issue. The team expects to have him on the ice in the coming days.
This season is a big one for the 27-year-old goalie. At this moment, he is the undisputed starter. The Sabres will need strong play in net to remain competitive in a very tough East Division. This will be the year Ullmark either proves himself as an NHL-capable starter, or a career backup in the league.
Stay tuned for further updates as training camp practices continue through the weekend, and into next week!