Questions linger with crowded house on blueline

Ever since Doug Janik and Rory Fitzpatrick took the ice for game seven of the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, defensive depth has been a focal point of how the Buffalo Sabres have been built.

The 2013-14 season will be no exception as the Sabres are heading to training camp with ten (TEN!) defensemen who will be battling for a spot on Buffalo’s NHL roster. For a team who struggled to find consistency on the back end last season, the plethora of rear guards on the roster isn’t a bad thing.

Of the ten defensemen I count as NHL ready, a few have all but sealed their spot on the roster entering the season. Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers and Mike Weber are all a sure thing to have an NHL job this season and newly acquired Henrik Tallinder should join them.

Where things get interesting is filling out the remaining three or four spots for the team. It’s particularly fascinating when you consider Rasmus Ristolainen as one of the players jockeying for a spot.

Ristolainen is widely considered to be NHL ready. He has the size and has spent the last two seasons playing professionally in Finland which shows that his resume is no joke. However, playing time and his overall skillset may ultimately keep him on a developmental level while other, more NHL ready options are utilized by the Sabres. Yet, yesterday’s quote that indicated that he’s either playing in the NHL or Finland could make him a x-factor of sorts.

There is no reason to keep Ristolainen around if he’s going to be scratched more often than he plays. It won’t be good for his development and will ultimately burn off a year of his entry level deal. Should the Sabres decide to keep eight defensemen – which is certainly a possibility – they’d be remissed to have Ristolainen as one of those eight. If they’re only keeping seven and he’s able to maintain a relatively stable spot in the lineup there may be cause to keep him around.

Obviously he won’t be filling a top four role, that’s all but out of the question. However, he may be able to work into a rotation on the bottom pair in the 5-7 role with two other players. At this point it would appear that Weber will lock into the “number five” role for the time being and see his partner rotate depending on performance and the lineup Ron Rolston wishes to ice on a nightly basis.

The two favorites for the sixth and seventh spot are likely Jamie McBain and Alexander Sulzer, which would leave Ristolainen on the outside looking in. However, it may not be out of the question for Sulzer to join Chad Ruhwedel and Brayden McNabb in Rochester to start the year as I do assume that those two end up being the odd men out. Sulzer could offer sound guidance in Rochester while McNabb and Ruhwedel get big minutes in an effort to accelerate their developmental track.

Sending Sulzer down, while somewhat unrealistic, would provide an opportunity for McBain, Ristolainen and Weber to platoon on the bottom pairing for most of the year. That would leave Ehrhoff, Myers, Tallinder and Mark Pysyk to round out the depth chart on D.

I do have Pysyk penciled in as Ehrhoff’s right-handed partner and that may be a surprise to many. However I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take on a larger role this year. He already saw upwards of 20 minutes last season and pairing him with Buffalo’s most steady defender would allow his two-way game to continue to blossom. While the bottom three players I mentioned earlier may be inaccurate, I feel very confident that Pysyk will be a major part of the plan on the blueline this season.

All said I doubt very much that Ristolainen ends up amongst the seven defensemen on the roster. While his upside is enticing, it would be foolish to force him into duty so early on when there are so many other NHL caliber players to contend with and without a guarantee of consistent playing time. It would be great to see a piece of the 2013 draft class into duty immediately, but it seems as if the roster has been constructed in a way in which the young Finn will be given one additional year to season before making the jump. The Finland option may muddy the waters a bit, but I don’t think that would be cause for the organization to push an agenda different from that which they’re currently following.

Perhaps development camp will shed more light on where Ristolainen will stand entering training camp and I do believe that he’ll be given a chance to play a few games with the big club before a final decision is made.

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