The specter of past failures often loom large for NHL franchises. For example, the lack of defensive depth in the spring of 2006 prompted Darcy Regier to go on a drafting and free agent spree that stocked the Sabres cupboards with defensemen. Now the organization is reaping the rewards of that draft strategy.
However, as it pertains to the Americans for the upcoming season, the blueline is going to be awfully crowded. Rochester will enter camp with ten defensemen on their roster. Like with their goaltenders, at least one or two will be destined to spend some time in the Coast during the year.
Easy money on that player will be Corey Fienhage. The former third round pick hasn’t panned out at nearly every level since he was drafted by the Sabres and he even spent some time in Gwinnett last season. Nick Crawford could also be a candidate for the Coast depending on the performance of some of the rookies that are coming in this season. Drew Schiestel will also be in a sticky situation as he comes back to the organization after being loaned to Texas last season – a move that many interpreted as a death sentence for his time with the Sabres.
Schiestel will be back for another year, but is looking up at a deep roster of defensemen who all saw serious time with the Amerks last year. Should Schiestel stay healthy over the season, he could certainly climb back up into the good graces with the coaching staff. After all, he was likely the first player who would have been called up last year had he not suffered additional injuries. The main hurdle Schiestel now needs to deal with will be the young prospects that will be playing in Rochester this season.
Mark Pysyk and Jerome Gauthier-Leduc are each entering their first professional season and will each bring plenty of mobility to a blueline that is already rich with physical defenders. Pysyk is a well-heralded prospect who fell to the Sabres in the first round of 2010. He is mobile, a right handed shot and is responsible at both ends of the ice. While he isn’t a straight ahead offensive dynamo, he certainly isn’t a stay-at-home stalwart, either. Pysyk plays a very balanced game and should get plenty of minutes in Rochester.
As for his fleet-footed 2010 draft mate. JGL is far more Gragnani than he is Campbell. JGL is a scoring machine and proved as much in his final year of junior. His defensive capabilities scare me, especially after seeing how useless Gragnani was in all but one playoff series during his Sabres career. Finding a way to develop a two-way game will likely be a key for JGL’s development.
A few mainstays for the Amerks blueline will be Alex Biega, Joe Finley and Matt MacKenzie. Biega, who wore a letter last season will continue to bring that sound two-way effort he has since his time at Harvard. Meanwhile MacKenzie will continue his development track that is basically one year ahead of Pysyk at this point.
Both MacKenzie and Pysyk are WHL alums who can play at both ends of the ice. While Pysyk’s pedigree is higher, MacKenzie has enjoyed a full season of professional hockey and will be back for year number two in 2012.
Finley is someone who I watched closely as his draft year approached. He is a hulking mass of humanity who is a more than willing fighter and brings with him a serious intimidation factor. While the first few years of his career were derailed by injury, the Sabres were smart to bring him in next year. He might be a darkhorse, but his development could certainly be a pleasant surprise for the Sabres and their NHL depth.
Outside of the anticipated professional debut for Pysyk, Sabres fans will be most concerned with the play of Brayden McNabb this season. After a very impressive NHL debut, fans have been prepared to crown him as the second coming due to his physical play.
McNabb should get top minutes in Rochester this year and be given every opportunity to not only play in every situation, but to continue his fast-track development. This season could very well be his final one in the minors, especially if he shows the same results that were on display last season in his handful of NHL games.
Of all the defensemen on the Amerks roster, TJ Brennan might be under the most pressure to perform. While McNabb has saddle the highest expectations, Brennan is a veteran who is well into his professional career despite only seeing a little bit of time in the NHL to this point. He is in great danger of being bypassed on the depth chart by McNabb based on the play of each player over the past season.
The portion of the Amerks roster that will benefit most from the influx of Sabres is the forward ranks. There are far more AHL-eligble forwards on the roster than defensemen. While a number of the nine defensemen on the roster saw time in the NHL last season, it would be safe to assume only two or three would end up getting a recall in 2012-13.
Should the labor situation ever come to a close, expect Brennan, McNabb and Finley to be under close observation as the first three up for the Sabres. But while hockey fans wait for spoiled rich guys to stop arguing, keep an eye on all 10 Amerks blueliners. Some of them will end up in the show.