Perhaps this season won’t be about winning the Cup for the Sabres, but that might not be all bad. If suffering is indeed what Sabres fans are in for, at least the crop of fresh faces on the roster will provide a compelling narrative to follow for the season.
In the weeks between the draft and training camp, the Sabres voiced their support of Rasmus Ristolainen as an NHL-ready prospect and confirmed that Mikhail Grigorenko would play the season in Buffalo. Additionally, players like Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Mark Pysyk began showing that they’d also be vying for a spot on the roster that takes the ice in Detroit on October 2.
With only six days left until the regular season opens, the roster is beginning to take shape with only a few spots left to confirm. How many fresh faces will be on the opening night roster is one aspect that hasn’t been determined at this point.
Buffalo still has nine defensemen in camp with newly signed, junior-eligble Nikita Zadorov amongst the group. Zadorov has received rave reviews throughout the summer and the preseason and has probably earned himself his nine-game tryout before being sent back to London. However, the already crowded blueline corps has little wiggle room to find a spot for Zadorov, even if it is for nine games.
It would be great if the Sabres could find a way to get Zadorov into the line-up for those first nine games, they certainly don’t need to have Alexander Sulzer on the roster to open the season and could use his spot to insert Zadorov to start. It isn’t inconceivable to think that either Sulzer or Jamie McBain will be heading to Rochester regardless of what the Sabres plan on doing with Zadorov simply because I don’t see many minutes available for those two at this point.
Ultimately Zadorov will probably be better off with one additional season in the OHL before vying for a permanent roster spot as early as next year. Even with Zadorov likely heading back to junior, the Sabres will likely get a healthy dose of Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk throughout that season as each of the young defensemen seem ready for a full year in the NHL.
Finding quality minutes for Buffalo’s valuable prospects is the underlying goal for this season. While many fans will likely go on about suffering, Ryan Miller not being traded and the general woebegone attitude that accompanies a team that may not see the postseason, the Sabres should actually be pretty fun to watch.
Not only will Pysyk be taking a major step forward into a full NHL role, Buffalo’s newest number one pick is also likely to see significant playing time this year. While Ristolainen isn’t likely to play over 20 minutes on a nightly basis, he’s likely going to have a role on the roster and there’s no reason to think that role will increase as the season progresses.
In addition, Grigorenko will most likely be joined by at least one of Joel Armia, Zemgus Girgensons or Johan Larsson. The latter two are probably the most likely to play in Buffalo right away as Armia will likely succumb to a numbers crunch on the wing.
Regardless, there is likely to be at least three of Buffalo’s top prospects taking the ice this season and there’s no reason to think that number could be as high as five depending on the roster Ron Rolston wishes to ice.
Grigorenko and Pysyk are shoo-ins. Pysyk almost doesn’t count at this point. Ristolainen seems like a near guarantee and given the reviews on their play through the summer and preseason, I’m expecting to see Girgensons and Larsson as well. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When you consider the alternative, there is no reason not to let this group of prospects earn their stripes immediately. Three spent a majority of last year in the AHL and the other two have been widely touted as NHL ready talents from the start. If the Sabres are indeed continuing through their rebuild as expected, why not provide this quintet the chance to play on the big stage all year long. When you consider the coach has done nothing but develop players his entire career, it isn’t unreasonable to think that this is the best place for them anyway.
I’m expecting to see Grigorenko settle in between Ville Leino and Steve Ott as he was expected to last year. Ristolainen should see third pair minutes while Pysyk may have the chance to see significant time as a top four defender this year.
Girgensons and Larsson are closer to the roster bubble than the other three, but there appears to be space for the two somewhere on Buffalo’s third line. Like with the young defenders, there’s no reason not to provide these two with a spot on the Sabres roster. Not only have both shown the ability to excel in a two-way role, the upside they offer appears to be greater than that of players like Luke Adam, Brian Flynn or even the injured Corey Tropp.
Not that the alternative is negative or completely unbearable to handle, but wouldn’t the Sabres be a far more compelling group if Girgensons, Grigorenko and Larsson are serving in significant roles up front with both Pysyk and Ristolainen seeing special teams minutes on the blueline? It would be even better to find a spot for Joel Armia, but I fear his injury from last night plus the adjustment to the North American game will land him in Rochester to start.
The youth movement has arrived in force, now it is time for the Sabres to give the kids their time.