As the Rochester Americans prepare to open training camp, and the Buffalo Sabres pare down their roster, the battle for the remaining roster spots is becoming clearer.
With the 11 prospects sent to Rochester this morning, there are only 41 players left in camp, and only 24 or 25 will be seriously fighting to avoid a drive up the 90. On the bubble are; Brad Boyes, Matt Ellis, Ales Kotalik, Shaone Morrisonn, Mike Ryan, Colin Stuart and Paul Szczechura. On the outside looking in are; Luke Adam, T.J. Brennan, Dennis Persson, Zack Kassian and Drew Schiestel. Corey Tropp earned a couple looks through the preseason, but I feel like he is still floating below guys like Adam, Kassian and the NHL veterans as well.
The main thing working against each of these players is the fact that a large portion of Lindy Ruff’s line up appears to be set. The Vanek-Roy-Pominville and Ennis-Leino-Stafford lines are locked in for the start of the season. In addition, the Gerbe-Gaustad-Kaleta line appears to be all but a lock as well. There is certainly a chance that another right-wing could be swapped for Kaleta, but it is unlikely.
Based on that information, there are only four spots open. Cody McCormick will be on the opening night roster while Boyes, Ellis, Jochen Hecht, Kotalik, Ryan, Stuart and Szczechura all battle for three spots. Boyes and Hecht may be favorites to come out alive, but don’t rule out Kotalik either.
Ales Kotalik played his best hockey for Lindy Ruff over seven seasons before suffering through three brutal campaigns with Edmonton, the Rangers and Calgary. Kotalik came in as a long-shot for the roster, he was simply a way to steal a second-round pick from the Flames. Howver, he still has a cannon from the point on the power play and remains one of the most prolific scorers in the history of the shootout. If this was the NFL he would make the team as a specialist. There is little room in the NHL to carry a shootout and power play guy who will give questionable support elsewhere – especially with a cap hit of over $2 million. Still, those two contributions play in Kotalik’s favor in his battle to make the roster. Attach those attributes to most other players and they would be an asset to any team.
Hecht and Boyes certainly have the upper hand over Kotalik, and only two of the three will make it through to opening night. Barring a major trade, there is no room for the nearly $10 million they account for against the cap.
The other four in the derby to sneak onto the final roster are scrapping to be the 22nd or 23rd player on the roster. They will serve as the extra forward and see time due to injuries or if Lindy Ruff needs a change of pace. Matt Ellis is probably the front-runner due to his versatility – he can play center and wing – and the fact that the Sabres are practically unbeatable with him in the lineup (#ellispriciple).
Mike Ryan and Colin Stuart will get their first action of the preseason against the Maple Leafs this evening and both can serve the team in a similar fashion as Ellis. Neither can play center, but they’re both quality wingers capable of playing 8-10 shifts without hurting the team. As for Szczechura, I doubt he enters into the equation. His ability to play center may merit a recall at some point, but the Amerks are desperate for centermen and he is the only one yet to receive playing time, thus far.
The scenario most expect – Boyes, Hecht and Ellis making the team – will likely be how this situation plays out in the end. However, I like what Ales Kotalik can bring to the table and I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he were to find a way to beat out one of the two incumbents.
Regardless, there will be some tough choices for the Sabres’ coaching staff as the preseason and training camp boils down.