With development camp set to open next week and training camp around the corner, the Buffalo Sabres roster still remains in a state of flux.
The acquisition of Steve Ott and Adam Pardy stripped another center off a roster that was already in need of an upgrade at the position. Although the trade further depleted the Sabres down the middle, it wasn’t as if Darcy Regier was treating getting a number one center with low priority.
In all fairness, acquiring Ott was a great hockey trade. Despite having a need for center depth, Roy was an expendable piece for an organization with an abundance of undersized forwards. With Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis and even Dan Catenacci under contract, the Sabre won’t miss another small forward. While Roy’s departure does create a vacancy, it provides the infusion of size and grit the Sabres had been searching for.
Losing out on an offensive center is not a good situation for a team that struggled to score in 2011-12, Ott does provide the Sabres with a flexible option. While the goal to acquire a true center is still the ultimate goal for the Sabres, it won’t be the easiest feat to accomplish. In addition to their deep defensive corps, the Sabres are overloaded on the left side at forward.
Ott is one of those left wingers, but he is capable of winning faceoffs and I fully expect to see him on the ice for defensive zone draws on penalty kills and at even strength. If absolutely necessary, Ott could fill a role as Buffalo’s third line center; unlike Ville Leino, he is capable of playing the position.
The true solution, in my opinion, is to keep Ott on the wing to take advantage of his offensive skillset. Yes, he is capable of producing points. The key lies with Thomas Vanek.
As the roster stands, the Sabres have Vanek, Ott, Marcus Foligno, Nathan Gerbe, Ville Leino and John Scott as their left wingers. Matt Ellis would also play left wing if not at center. On the right side only Pat Kaleta Jason Pominvile, Drew Stafford and Cory Tropp remain on the roster from 2011-12. By bumping Vanek to the right side would not only clear up depth at left wing, it would provide balance down the depth chart.
Lindy Ruff had fiddled with Vanek at right wing a few times with mixed results. I’m guessing with a solid pair of linemates this switch would benefit him and the team.
With Vanek on the right side, either Leino or Ott could be penciled in to play across from him depending on which center is slotted as the pivot beside Vanek. Cody Hodgson would provide a nice scoring touch, especially with Leino on left wing. This seems like a good trio simply because Leino’s puck control skills are tailor-made to feed a pair of scorers like Hodgson and Vanek. Of course, the assumed defensive tire fire that line would be could cause some trouble.
While the Foligno/Ennis/Stafford line would likely remain unchanged, Pominville and Ott (or Leino) could settle on a line together. Pominville and Ott would complement each other well, especially since Pominville plays a responsible defensive game. The Pominville/Ott pairing would present another place for Hodgson to play, but a two-way center could also fill in nicely there. With the right center, that would be the closest thing the Sabres would have to a shutdown line.
With the fourth line being some order of Gerbe, Ellis, McCormick, Scott, Kaleta and possibly Corey Tropp, there isn’t much need to break down the exact way in which the line will be put on the ice. Let’s just assume the Bruins bashing line will be Scott/McCormick/Kaleta.
What now needs to be determined is who will serve as Buffalo’s third center? Looking at the roster it would seem like the worst case scenario would be to use Ott in that role. Best case lies somewhere between trading for an established number one center and having Mikhail Grigorenko step in and perform admirably in his first pro season.
Perhaps the most likely option would be to pick up one of the centers that remain on the free agent market and allow them to fill a fourth line role during Girgorenko’s nine-game audition. That way if Grigroenko is sent to Quebec, the new free agent can step into that third line role and the lines could be adjusted if necessary.
For those playing along at home, pencil in either Grigorenko with a free agent to skate with the third or fourth line depending on how Grigorenko fairs at the beginning of the season. Hell, for the right price Jochen Hecht could play that third/fourth line tweener role based on what Buffalo’s needs would be. Hecht probably would only fit if the Sabres were looking for a two-way center who shoots exclusively from below the goal line.
The goal would be to have a center capable of playing between Ott and Pominville (hypothetically) if Grigorenko was sent back to junior. However, they would need to be equally capable skating with the Sabres grinders on the fourth line if the young Russian impresses to start the season. Based on who remains on the market, Jesse Winchester, Dominic Moore and Daymond Langkow could fill such a role.
Ideally, Grigorenko sticks around and begins growing into the center the Sabres are searching for. If not, the UFA signing represents a temporary stop-gap while Grigorenko rounds into form.
Finding a center remains the biggest hurdle for the Sabres this offseason, but letting Thomas Vanek balance out their abundance of wingers could help direct the Sabres towards a solution down the middle.