UPDATE: This was written as the news regarding Mikhail Grigorenko’s demotion broke.
The puck officially drops on the Buffalo Sabres season on Thursday night when Columbus rolls into town. Today marks the final day for roster trimming and the Sabres still have a few moves to make in order to work their way to 23 players.
Ted Nolan’s job isn’t going to be easy, especially when it comes to choosing his forwards.
Buffalo’s roster, for the most part, is fairly easy to project. A handful of defensemen – Tyler Myers, Josh Gorges, Andrej Meszaros, Mike Weber and Andre Benoit – are all but assured a spot as are a fair group of forwards. Namely Brian Gionta, Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson, Chris Stewart, Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, Drew Stafford and Zemgus Girgensons.
That leaves only a few spots for a number of players.
Buffalo’s crease is set in stone at this point. Jhonas Enroth has been terrific in the preseason while Michal Neuvirth has been anything but. While Neuvirth may do a bit more for the mission for Connor McDavid, Enroth has won the number one job entering the year.
It seems like the blueline is the easiest to predict even with a strong preseason from Jake McCabe. Myers and Gorges will pair together and it seems as if Meszaros and Rasmus Ristolainen will round out the top four. While I’m unsure of Mark Pysyk’s injury, he along with Weber and Benoit seem like the most likely trio to round out the group. That presents a depth chart that looks like this:
Gorges – Myers
Meszaros – Ristolainen
That grouping allows for a few things, both in the NHL and organizationally. First, it provides a solid group with two of Buffalo’s most prized blueline prospects seeing significant NHL minutes. Depending upon his health, I’d expect Pysyk to see the lion’s share of games of the third pairing as a rotation between Benoit and Weber would allow Nolan to tweak his lineup to be heavier or more offensively inclined depending on who he dresses.
This group of seven would also see Nikita Zadorov sent back to London while Jake McCabe and Tyson Strachan would be demoted to Rochester. The latter two would join Chad Ruhwedel as the top-three minute eaters for the Americans. McCabe, Ruhwedel and Strachan would also be the first three players to be recalled due to injury or poor play.
Sending Zadorov to junior and McCabe to Rochester are two moves made simply for development purposes. While Zadorov hasn’t earned rave reviews, London is the best place for him. He will likely near 30 minutes each night playing in every situation. It’s a solid confidence boost while the Sabres bide time until his junior eligibility expires. It’s a similar story for McCabe as he enters his first full professional season. Seeing more special teams minutes will give him excellent growth opportunities compared to a third pairing role and limited special teams time in Buffalo. He’ll be a top-four defenseman in Rochester compared to a sixth or even seventh defenseman in Buffalo. Ruhwedel and Strachan are simply quality depth veterans. I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Ruhwedel in his time in Buffalo and I’m hoping the landscape shifts in a way that merits a return to Buffalo in the near future.
Buffalo’s forward ranks are a bit murkier than the blueline. The decision revolving around the second line center position is a hot topic and weeding out who will fill out the bottom six provides plenty of fodder based on the number of bodies alone.
The wingers in the top-nine are all but set. Moulson, Hodgson and Foligno will slot in down the left side while Stafford, Gionta and Stewart will fill in on the right. Tyler Ennis is locked in as the first line center and it would appear he’ll have Moulson and Stafford on either wing. It’s possible that Gionta and Stafford swap but that’s probably the most shuffling that would happen with that group. Girgensons will likely fill the spot between Stewart and Foligno on the third line.
The Sabres have upwards of five names battling for three spots on the fourth line. Cody McCormick’s role as a fighter and in the locker room makes him a near guarantee for a spot (his contract plays a major role too) as does the contract status and penalty killing prowess of Torrey Mitchell. That leaves Brian Flynn, Pat Kaleta and Nicolas Deslauriers for the final spot or two. Deslauriers has been impressive through the preseason and is about as prototypical as you can get for what Ted Nolan looks for in a player. Flynn has more offensive upside than Kaleta but the injury to the latter will at least ease the tough choices for the time being. In theory Zac Dalpe is part of this group but it’s been my point of view that he has been signed to be a point producer in Rochester and I’d be very surprised if that changed at all.
That leaves the only question mark at second line center. That conversation has centered around Sam Reinhart and Mikhail Grigorenko for most of the preseason.
Making a choice between the two puts the team on a razor’s edge. On one hand you have Grigorenko who has rebuilt himself this summer and has shown a new commitment to playing a 200-foot game. By all accounts it seems like he finally “gets it” and is ready to take the next step in his development. However, will he benefit more from starting in the NHL or would first line minutes and loads of special teams time in Rochester do him a better service?
Reinhart has the ability to return to junior after nine games, which would at least give the staff almost until Halloween to make a decision. While Reinhart has shown flashes of his brilliance, he hasn’t stood out among the rest of the team, let alone the player he may be fighting for a spot against. If the choice was going to be made off training camp and preseason play, I’d bet on seeing Grigorenko on opening night. If the staff is working on a plan of developing their assets across the organization, I’d send him down.
Personally, I’d prefer to see him at least start the year in Rochester. The previous regime damaged his progression so badly that starting the year in Buffalo with the potential to be demoted just seems like a bad combination. Allowing him to play big minutes in Rochester and keep his on-ice confidence high seems like the best bet. Further, it gives the Sabres much more flexibility elsewhere.
*Grigorenko’s demotion strikes me as a wise move. It provides Reinhart with a chance to see NHL action while giving the organization nearly an entire month to make a final decision on the roster. All the while Grigorenko will be playing a large role in Rochester. This is a win-win for the Sabres.
Reinhart isn’t likely to stay beyond nine games and while I’m hoping to see him score his first NHL goal (no his preseason goal didn’t count) in this debut, I’d much prefer the Sabres slow-play his development this year considering the 2015 Draft is setting up as the tipping point for this rebuild.
That leaves the team with a depth chart that looks something like this for Thursday:
Moulson – Ennis – Stafford
Hodgson – Reinhart – Gionta
Foligno – Girgensons – Stewart
Deslauriers – Mitchell – McCormick/Flynn
IR: Larsson, Kaleta
If and when Reinhart is sent back to junior I’d expect Girgensons to bump to the second line, Mitchell to bump to the third line and the fourth line to settle out as Deslauriers – McCormick – Flynn/Kaleta with Larsson returning to Rochester or perhaps even sticking around as a 14th forward.
That lineup (post-Reinhart) is certainly better than the team Buffalo iced a year ago but is a far cry from a contender in today’s NHL. Tim Murray took steps to markedly improve his team, but all signs point to the Sabres hoping for one of the top two picks in this year’s draft. This lineup seems like one that will improve over 2013-14 but still linger in the thick of the lottery race:
Moulson – Ennis – Stafford
Hodgson – Girgensons – Gionta
Foligno – Mitchell – Stewart
Bear in mind the expiring contracts of Stewart, Stafford and Meszaros as likely deadline departures and the holes those three will leave in Buffalo’s lineup. Of course those three won’t be a factor in today’s decisions, although the choices made on the roster today will shape a great deal of how things will shake out this season.